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Is Cash the Right Measure for Artistic Achievement?

24th Apr 2013
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Overnight, Maria Miller the Culture Secretary has apparently announced that future arts funding will be based on financial returns rather than artistic merit.

As somebody with a foot in both camps, switching between Human Capital Partner at BDO and theatre critic on a regular basis, your columnist is perhaps better placed than many to comment on this thorny issue.

As a cultural critic or merely arts enthusiast, there are times when one is forced to endure the most awful rot that has clearly been funded by public money, whether on stage, canvas, silver screen or other medium. This is where the Miller argument that funding for experimental arts is not justified when the economy is enjoying its fifth year of free-fall seems compelling.

It might also be suggested that if the public isn't willing to shell out the necessary sums to bring artistic presentations into profit then they probably aren't worth doing in the first place. Once again, it is possible to see at least some merit in this argument.

Perhaps the biggest problem is judging the period of return. On this morning's Today programme, Will Gompertz cited a number of different examples of projects that turned out to be unexpected successes.

During his lifetime, Vincent van Gogh was probably generally regarded as a bit of a loser - that nutty painter chap with an ear missing who liked painting his boots and sunflowers far too much for comfort. Nowadays, had the Dutch government purchased the whole of his oeuvre, they would be sitting on a goldmine.

Who is to judge which current British artists might be about to follow suit and is there something of a problem in today's instant gratification society, if one has to wait a century or two for the payback?

The problem with the arts is the serendipity. Amidst innumerable commercial failures, The Royal Shakespeare Company originated Les Misérables and Matilda the Musical, two sure-fire money-makers today but not when they were originally mooted.

It is amusing to consider how conversations with the government funding bodies must have gone. "I've got this great idea. I want to produce a big budget musical based on a forgotten 1,500 page French novel from 100 years ago". I think we can all guess Ms Miller's answer to that one.

Similarly, the National Theatre has turned War Horse and One Man, Two Guvnors into global brands that are not only drawing tourists to London but also presumably bringing in massive amounts of import cash, as well as promoting Britain as a cultural centre.

On a much smaller scale, the British Council exports authors, theatrical productions, art exhibitions and much, much more with no guaranteed payback but an underlying theory that this must be good for the profile and indirectly the finances of the UK.

This is hardly the first time that a government has suggested cutbacks to the arts. Nationally, most companies and artists seem capable of surviving the knocks after long experience but wouldn't it be good if the Coalition backed down this time around and started promoting the arts as one of the last things that Britain does better than anyone else in the world. After all, compared to an aircraft carrier or high-speed train project, the total cost of the arts is a drop in the ocean.

You have to hope.

A version of this post has also appeared on BritishTheatreGuide.info

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By plummy1
25th Apr 2013 14:35

Very Good Question

I think there is a real danger in trying to apply economic and financial principles to art which you have highlighted. I was once involved in the funding decisions of a theatre. If making money had been the priority then it would have just been an endless programme of  tribute acts and live entertainment for stag and hen parties. Call me a snob but I think there needs to be a balance struck or we will end up with a culture which knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.     

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By KH
26th Apr 2013 12:48

Agree with plummy1

My wife is a writer of literary fiction, had a novel published by Transworld as a launch title for its now-dead literary fiction arm, Anchor, and she hardly made a penny from it, even though it had glowing reviews from Pat Barker, all major newspapers, all the way down to a couple of dodgy mens magazines, and with a couple of English professors in the States saying this was a great addition to the English literary canon .... yet 50 Shades of Grey earns zillions ... if you go by monetary success, you'll never see great art or any type, except by pure chance. Mind you, trying to spot "great art" anyway is a lose-lose game, unless you own a London gallery which all the London luvvies frequent. By the way, in case this looks like a rant, it isn't. It's just a shame that the killing-off of art that Tony Blair started is now finding favour with successive governments. Time to emigrate........

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Replying to sash100:
By plummy1
26th Apr 2013 13:16

Benefits of Culture

Trouble is like many of these things the decisions we take now may have a short term gain financially but in most cases the long term effects are not know and may have exactly the opposite effect. I remember Ben Elton complaining years ago that in politics everything is becoming style over content and this seems to have been creeping into  every area of our lives including the Arts. Sorry that was a rant.    

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By reilloc
27th Apr 2013 01:56

Knowing the price of everything and the price of nothing
The problem with this government's approach (inherited directly from the Thatcher/Major years) is that they typify the quote from Oscar Wilde. The costs of productions, especially off-west-end and a few other urban centres, mean that very few make much in the way of profits. The same is true for the museums, galleries, theatres, concert halls, etc. however, the subsidies given are probably less than the overall welfare bill that would ultimately result from their removal. Also, these productions/shows and so on are the training ground for the future successes - how many playwrights, actors, musicians, artists, etc. have commercial success on their first activity?
And that is without the social value of all the enjoyment that is gained whether it is from watching a show, or indeed taking part in an amateur production in a quasi-commercial venue.

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