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Future investments

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  • Picture of Fiona Laird
    Fiona Laird
    Founder of the National Youth Arts Trust
  • Arts and culture
  • Education and learning

The National Youth Arts Trust was founded a decade ago to counter the damage caused by years of government cuts. Today, its mission (and challenges) are more critical than ever.

I like to think that most people reading this piece will already believe this, but I’m going to say it anyway: the arts are not a luxury for rich people. A talent for acting, singing, dancing or playing the cello has nothing to do with the state of your parents’ bank balance. The love for, and appreciation of, the performing arts is shared by millions of people in this country, and the ability to buy a ticket for the theatre, a concert, a dance piece or an opera should not be curtailed by the size of a person’s income. The more art people see, the more they want to see, and the more they want other people to see. Art nourishes, civilises, uplifts and inspires us.

I founded the National Youth Arts Trust (NYAT) in 2013 in response to the growing crisis in funding for performing arts education in the UK. After years of reduced government investment, it had become difficult, if not impossible, for young people from non-privileged backgrounds to find access to any training in the performing arts. (At present, fewer than 30% of UK primary school pupils take part in any form of drama, music or dance.) The NYAT’s aim was, and still is, to provide these young people with opportunities to train in dance, music and drama. The NYAT has now been in existence for 10 years and I am immensely proud of it. But the fight (and constant begging) to obtain the money needed to provide thousands of young people with opportunities they would otherwise be denied is only a part of the story.

Arts funding in this country is in serious trouble.

To see the big picture clearly, it’s necessary to go back a few years. Up until 2008, the arts were booming: government investment in the sector had doubled since 1997 and private investment in the arts had reached record levels. In 2007, theatre attendance across the UK reached its highest point since record-keeping began, with around 13.5 million people attending the theatre that year.

Things began to change in September 2007, when a bank called Northern Rock suddenly faced a liquidity crisis and needed a loan from the British government – cue the first run on a British bank in 150 years. On 15 September that year, Wall Street investment bank Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy – you may have seen a play about it – and suddenly the entire world was engulfed in the biggest financial crisis in nearly a century.

Inevitably, the UK government in power at the time was held responsible and duly punished. Gordon Brown was unable to form a government following the 2010 election and, after a brief kerfuffle, a coalition government of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats was formed. Jeremy Hunt, while in opposition as the Shadow Culture Secretary, had been making friendly noises to the arts sector, and his May 2010 inaugural speech as the new Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport gave arts leaders some reason to hope that he might have meant what he said. At the time, Charles Saumarez Smith, then Secretary and Chief Executive of the Royal Academy of Arts, commented, “Given the disastrous state of the public finances, Jeremy Hunt’s strategy is sensible: reassure the arts community by heaping praise on the achievements of the last 10 years; lever in extra public funding by restoring the lottery to its original purposes; and then do everything that can be done to encourage private philanthropy.”

Funding failings

But as a certain Prince of Denmark might have expressed it, Hunt’s speech was clearly nothing more than “words, words, words” because, just one year later, his department oversaw a 29% cut in the government’s grant to Arts Council England (ACE). The National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the English National Opera all suffered huge cuts to their funding, and some theatres and theatre companies lost their funding completely, as did – almost unbelievably given Hunt’s insistence on his commitment to increasing private funding for the arts – the one organisation that then existed to help arts organisations raise funds: Arts and Business.

Since 2011, the arts sector has suffered cut after cut and little action has been taken to fill the void

And that was only the start. Since 2011, the arts sector has suffered cut after cut and little action has been taken to fill the void. A series of apparently indifferent secretaries of state at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) seem to have done nothing more than obey the Treasury’s bidding to find ever more savings in their budget. A spark of hope emerged when, during the Covid-19 pandemic, the government allotted £1.6bn to a Culture Recovery Fund, which prevented the collapse of the entire sector. It now seems that this was a lone – albeit generous – gesture. Nicholas Hytner, former Artistic Director of the National Theatre, wrote recently of his “despair at the bizarre decision to invest heavily in a fund to help the arts outlive Covid, only to starve them of the support they need to return to health”.

Southern discomfort

And this is the crux of the matter: there has been no sign, for decades, of any coherent strategy to support the arts in this country, no rhetoric or policymaking emanating from the DCMS, Department for Education (DfE), or indeed No.10, that indicates any real belief in the power and value of the arts. In February 2022, then Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries instructed ACE to take £24m from London and distribute it elsewhere in England, which – to quote Hytner again – “was nowhere near enough to transform the picture in the rest of the country, but enough to devastate English National Opera”; later that year the Donmar Warehouse, Oldham Coliseum, Hampstead Theatre, the Watermill, and the Gate lost their ACE funding completely.

As if this weren’t bad enough, these cuts followed on a devastating 2021 announcement by then Education Secretary Gavin Williamson that the UK government subsidy to university arts courses would be reduced by nearly 50%, and would instead be funnelled into the science sector. Not only was this a blow to students across the nation and the future of the creative industries, but it created a simplistically dangerous argument that a society must choose between the arts and science. For goodness’ sake. It’s like asking a person if they’d rather have a left or a right hemisphere in their brain – you can’t function without both.

But the lack of coherent arts policy is about much more than funding from the DCMS and the DfE. Where are the people creating imaginative and effective new policies that will reverse the current drop in the rate of charitable and philanthropic giving in this country? That will incentivise individuals and companies to support and sponsor the arts? That will encourage the belief that the arts are worth our time and money?

And, of course, investment in the arts is not simply about paying the costs of making the work. It’s about making it possible for anyone – everyone – to see it. The National Theatre uses a huge amount of its income to keep ticket prices as low as possible for everyone; any UK resident between the ages of 16 and 25 can book a ticket for £10 or under for any National Theatre show. Creating that opportunity is a serious expense. But what a vital investment it is.

Aristotle said, “the aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.” In the UK, as a country and a society, we are in desperate need of leaders who will do the same, and show us that, when it comes to the arts, they understand not just their cost, but their incalculable value to us all.

Fiona Laird is a theatre director, writer and composer, and Founder of the National Youth Arts Trust.

To learn more, visit the National Youth Arts Trust website.

This article first appeared in RSA Journal issue 4 2023.

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  • I agree with everything in this article. It should also be noted that, as well as cuts to the Arts Council grants, the government's continuing reduction of the grants to of Local Authorities, many Councils have been forced to reduce or cancel entirely their funding (often more generous than that of the Arts Council) for theatres and concert halls. The failure to support the teaching of drama, music and the arts in schools and higher education is a separate but equally disastrous policy. One suspects that cultural as well as financial considerations are at play here.

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