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Tomorrow sees more than 400 people from across the arts sector attend the second annual State of the Arts Conference co-hosted by the RSA and Arts Council England. The delegates gather under a dark cloud. Arts funding faces a 30% cut over the next three years. If the art you enjoy relies on public subsidy, you can look forward to fewer shows or higher prices.

The sector doesn’t have time to wallow in self-pity. It needs to develop new ways of working which make less funding go further. One answer is for arts organisations to become more entrepreneurial, finding new ways of marketing and selling content. Broadcasting live ballet and opera to cinemas, and cheap theatre seats for quiet weeknights are just some of examples which combine income generation with getting more people involved. The Government – represented at the conference by Arts Minister Ed Vaizey - puts great store by individual and corporate philanthropy. But with 75 per cent of all private sponsorship going to London, it is the capital’s great  international brands like Tate Modern or the British Museum  that  have the greatest capacity to navigate the choppy waters ahead.

There is much less reason to feel confident for the future of regional, local and community based arts projects. Many of these projects are great - from Streetwise Opera’s transforming work with homeless people to the STRIDE dance project’s inspirational work with young men, and are used to having to make ends meet. But they might not need to if the arts sector could break free from a woolly and self-serving case for public subsidy. Part of the problem has been a tired old argument between the ‘instrumental’ case for arts funding (that arts projects can achieve concrete outcomes like reducing youth offending or improving mental health) and the intrinsic (art for art’s sake).

This is a spurious distinction. For a start the arts sector has never really been subject to the rigorous audit culture other public services accept as an inevitable consequence of spending taxpayers’ money. More fundamentally the idea that in straitened times we should fund art just because artists and their audiences enjoy making it and consuming it is untenable, especially as the beneficiaries of high culture tend overwhelmingly to be among the better off in society.  Instead the arts sector needs to have the confidence to show it is vital to making good lives in a good society.

There is, for example, evidence from the US and the UK that – even accounting for differences in education and class - people who get involved in arts are more likely to also get involved in civic life, volunteering for example. To succeed in the global economy we need people who have the confidence and imagination to feel comfortable with other cultures, so engagement in the arts is a good training for modern citizenship and entrepreneurial success. Eroding the arts offer will diminish the life chances and prosperity of future generations. 

So the arts must make a strong case for being part of both the big and the good society. If it does so it will be able, in time, to open up new funding sources. But the subsidised sector will also probably have to change the way it works, for example putting more emphasis on participation and more work into engaging people from across society. In just a year the arts sector has gone from feast to famine; its prospects for the long term rest on proving that we all – culture vulture and arts novice alike - have a stake in its success.

This is a 400 word summary of pamphlet John Knell and I have written for the conference – you can read it in all its glory here.


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