Sunday 3 April 2011
Funding cuts coverage
So, “Arts Council England funding cuts”, eh?
Having spent much of the day itself and latter half of the week reading about them, it seems the only thing still lacking is coverage of the coverage.
The first thing that needs pointing out is that, contra the above-quoted locution, the cuts aren't really “Arts Council cuts”. Or at least, rather than simply being cuts made by the Arts Council England, they might more properly be thought of as that organisation's administration and allocation of the reduced budget allotted to them by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government. It's a good rule of thumb that if an article doesn't make this distinction within the first two paragraphs, it's probably not worth reading.
While, yes, it is ultimately Arts Council England deciding where the money goes, there is less money for them to allocate than there was in the last spending round in 2008 and it is primarily this which has necessitated their making any cuts at all. At the same time, it should be noted that the Arts Council has also dug into its Lottery reserve to the tune of £82 million, in order that it might cushion the blow.
That said, ACE's response has been, rather than simply shaving an equal percentage off each organisation they had hitherto been funding – a practice charmingly euphemised as “salami slicing”, as if salamis were traditionally served by chopping fifteen per cent off one end – to conduct a thoroughgoing reappraisal of both their entire portfolio of funded organisations and indeed the entire structure of their funding model (changing RFOs into NPOs and so on).
The differences between this funding round and their last, announced in December '07, are incredible. Indeed, it's hard to believe they were carried out by the same organisation. Which, in one sense, they weren't – depending on one's view of the philosopher's axe.
Whereas in January '08 the Arts Council was issued with a vote of no confidence as a result of their proposed cuts, this time around, it has gathered almost nothing but praise. There is near-universal recognition that it has come up with a portfolio of artists, and settlements upon them, which has been rigorously thought about, re-thought about and agonised over; and in a far more difficult set of circumstances than last time.
Of course, there are individual decisions which different people would have made differently. I, for example, think it's terrible that Third Angel have had their funding cut by 100%, but would have happily cut the Tricycle by a good deal more than 11% if left to my own cack-handed devices.
Which at once touches at one corner of what makes writing about these cuts difficult: personal preference and a lack of first hand knowledge. Both these issues also go a long way toward demonstrating why we have an Arts Council in the first place.
This is best evidenced by Messers Spencer, Cavendish and Callow.
Of the three, Spencer perhaps comes out best, offering only seven short paragraphs in which he rehearses a few of his already well-known prejudices. His 2009 review starting: “Reviewers should be honest about their prejudices and one of mine is a great dislike for the Arcola Theatre in darkest [!] Dalston. It’s a nightmare to get to [from Surrey], and when you finally arrive in the neighbourhood you find yourself on a menacing main street, often patrolled by terrifying hooded youths [!]...”
Here becomes: “the Arcola in... Dalston gets an increase of 82 per cent. This seems to be an example of the Arts Council favouring a venue in a run-down location rather than one that attracts the Islington fashionistas. The posh Almeida audience may now be required to dig deeper into their pockets. ”
Never mind that Islington ceased to be fashionable in about '95. In the world of Telegraph-shorthand for “blacks” and “queers”, this imaginary play-off between “terrifying hooded youths” and “fashionistas” should keep them gurgling happily for days.
It's worth noting in passing that while those figures – some of the most quoted across reports, not least because they're rare examples of numbers different to 11 or 15 – sound extreme, the actuality is that the Almeida losing 39.0% means it's going from £1,052,543 down to £704,917, while the Arcola's 82.1% gain raises £157,418 to £314,879 – still less than half the public money the Almeida gets (also worth noting that the venues' public subsidy isn't the whole of their income. The Almeida is sponsored by the private bank for millionaires, Coutts, and the Arcola is sponsored by the American financial firm Bloomberg)
Spencer rounds his piece off with a joke about not liking the London International Mime Festival, which is, of course, totally unforgivable.
Crucially, though, at no stage does he once question the actual practice of funding the arts. It's just one guy's “Well, I wouldn't necessarily do it like that” thoughts.
Putting its finger on the problem of this subjectivity much more firmly is Dominic Cavendish's oddly chippy piece. It is worth quoting him at some length:
“I have to declare that, having looked over the Arts Council’s existing list of regularly funded clients, which will be supplanted from April 2012 with the new National portfolio, I was astonished by how many theatre companies have barely registered as significant players, let alone produced works of memorable excellence, in the 10 years I’ve been reviewing, and covering the regions.
To name half a dozen: Mimbre theatre, Spare Tyre theatre company, Dodgy Clutch Theatre, Lawnmowers Theatre, M6 theatre company and Monster Productions. Two of these companies (Dodgy Clutch, who specialise in outdoor experiences, and Monster, who have produced musical theatre for children) are now funding-less, but the others are doing OK - some are doing better than OK; Lawnmowers Theatre, which works with learning disabled, gets a 21 per cent increase.
To single these companies out is not to denigrate the work they’ve done - they’ve been so off the radar, there’s no knowing - or to imply that they won’t achieve excellent in the future; but if there’s a glaring deficit in the arts at the moment, it remains that the incredible talk about what the arts achieve and what they do for the public, taxpaying or otherwise, isn’t always matched by audiences' understanding or appreciation of what is out there.”
Which is one way of putting it. Another might be to suggest there's a “glaring deficit” in the Telegraph's regional reviewing. Except it's not even that. After all, does a theatre company which works with the learning disabled even want a review from the Daily Telegraph? Much though theatre critics might like to believe that they're the eyes and ears of the public, the fact is, if you're the second string theatre critic of Britain's most right-wing broadsheet, owned by two reclusive tax-exiles, it might have just not occurred to a company working with learning disabled children in Gateshead that Telegraph readers are interested in their work.
Cavendish's suggestion that the “incredible talk about what the arts achieve and what they do for the public... isn’t always matched by audiences' understanding or appreciation of what is out there” seems hard to verify. Or rather, he gives absolutely no evidence for his claim – although “isn't always” is such a moveable feast as to be almost impossible to disprove. It is equally likely that people might be made aware of what's going on near them by their own local information networks, advertising and media, rather than them requiring notification or critical approbation from the national press.
Granted, when Toby Frow raised the issue of regional coverage in a Guardian blog last year, the fierce resentment of even the Guardian's critics' perceived London-centric agenda reverberated through the comments section. On the other hand, isn't at least some of what the Arts Council funds not specifically aimed at the widest possible audience?
My friend Jo Wright works at South Hill Park, an arts centre which has just been cut by 100%. It's a “mixed arts” venue which serves as a local venue for touring theatre productions – they've got Noughts & Crosses and the excellent Poland 3 – Iran 2 coming in soon. They also serve as a home for dance, have a gallery and run all sorts of classes and youth groups. Etc. Jo appeared on Anne Diamond's Radio Berkshire programme (No. I didn't know that existed, but I don't live in Berkshire) to talk about what they did (link is iPlayer, so might disappear).
This is her talking about someone who'd benefited from what they did there:
"...Honey, who's 8 years old, is another one with massive autism. She let me brush her hair for the first time ever because she was in role. As a rabbit."
This doesn't need a star-rated review to prove it's valuable, does it?
But least Cavendish flags up his own subjectivity. He is surprised that he's not heard of some regional touring companies, but doesn't presume to judge them. Demonstrating again why we have an Arts Council and not just a few pundits based mostly in London.
Which brings us to Simon Callow, who, I note with great displeasure, is going to be on Question Time next week opposite Jeremy Hunt. His little contribution to the Guardian's round-up of the Arts great'n'good's take on the cuts, is flabby, self-interested, petulant, myopic and ignorant:
“I'm utterly bewildered by the way the cuts have been applied.” He begins, unpromisingly. “And I can't begin to understand... I can't imagine what... I don't know what...” he continues, before asking “[I]s the Walk the Plank theatre company really the most important thing to invest in at a time like this?” Clearly he's not the man to ask.
He then goes on to deliver a perplexing and contradictory assessment of how Tom Morris's move from artistic directorship of the BAC to directing War Horse at the NT apparently demonstrates that it is the Arts Council and not Simon Callow who don't understand Britain's theatre ecology.
The Culture Secretary must be quaking in his boots.
There is no point in reading Quentin Lett's pre-annoucement piece for the Mail, and I'm not linking to it either. Letts in the Mail is no more than a preacher to his choir of paranoid left-conspiracy theorists and online he just reads like a troll who's got above the line. As such, the online coverage fight was between the Grauniad and the Torygraph since the Indie opted for a bit of wire-copy to cover the entire thing and the Times remained behind a paywall which no one ever pays.
Having dispatched the Telegraph's contributions, it should also be stated that Charlotte Higgins's piece for the Guardian is a masterclass in hyperbole, illogical argument, imprecision and cliché.
“It is a black day for the arts in England and, for all the government's comforting rhetoric, it will have to take responsibility for a crude, unthinking vandalism to the English cultural landscape.”
I defy a right-wing satirist to come up with a better parody. The piece concludes:
“Whether the government's behaviour is blunderingly careless rather than deliberately destructive to the arts is a moot point. There is no official policy that cries "cast down the arts!". Some good intentions are signalled by the support in the budget for cultural philanthropy. But the whole picture is one of a vicious assault, on every front. ”
“Blundering carelessness” is odd, because it was “unthinking vandalism” at the beginning. Similarly, how – if it's a “moot point” whether the “government's behaviour” is “blunderingly careless” (good adverb!) or not – can “the whole picture”be “one of a vicious assault”? Carelessness, blundering or otherwise, is not assault.
And the accusation is not strictly true, since what the the Government actually did was reduce the amount of money that the Arts Council had to distribute – in line with its general policy of reducing spending across the board. It left the thinking to the Arts Council. As a result, the “vandalism” was executed with incredible thoughtfulness, and not by the government. Similarly, since Arts Council England has partially plugged the gap left by the government's re-allocation of money, “the whole picture” looks a lot less bad than it might have done.
None of this is to condone either the arts cuts or the government's wider policy of cutting public spending. But it is important to get the language right. Sadly, Higgins's stab at rhetorical flourish has already done its damage; already flashed up on The Review Show after Quentin Lett's piece as if to prove his powers of clairvoyance, and it has doubtless being logged in the memories of many others wishing for a good go-to example of “keening and caterwauling on an epic scale”.
On the day itself, far better pieces emerged from Meghan Vaughan and Dan Bye. Similarly, the first most readily accessible overview was also provided by a blogger: Fin Kennedy's no-nonsense practical guide to what had happened. (with a follow-up piece here)
Playwright and academic Dan Rebellato's piece offered an excellent overview of the cuts:
“The Arts Council has done a near-miraculous job, a much better job than the Coalition deserves. They could have enacted a programme of swingeing vandalism - axe the Royal Opera House’s annual £28.3m for example - and let the Coalition take the hurt. They’ve been, in fact, forward-looking and creative.”
The main meat of his piece, however, is an attack on the attitude of triumphal philistinism taken by those offering their pearls of artistic/economic non-wisdom in the nation's online comment boxes.
Also brilliant is NT Artisitic Director Nicholas Hytner's piece in the London Evening Standard. Hytner is perhaps the gutsiest commentator yet. He admits that he doesn't “think that we have any superior claim on the public purse at a time when, in the cause of a beautifully balanced budget, more or less everything that makes a vibrant economy worthwhile is being undermined” and even that “there is something I recognise in the adrenaline-fuelled conviction of our political masters. They govern in a spirit of swaggering certainty that I value in my creative colleagues.” He admits that the government's plans might even pan out, at least in economic terms. At the same time, his acid diplomacy lands far more punches than Higgins's bluster.
The final piece I'd draw your attention to comes, surprisingly, from the Spectator; the right-wing politics and arts magazine which also boasts Charles Moore's hunting column and the Wehrmacht-wannabe society scribbler, Taki.
It does some much-needed high-Tory legwork:
“There is a corroborative quotation circulating the internet which tells that during the Second World War, Winston Churchill’s finance minister said Britain should cut arts funding to support the war effort. Churchill reportedly retorted: “Then what are we fighting for?”
“This is fantastic, true-blue Tory red-meat support for maintaining the level of arts funding in the face of national crisis: if we can sustain the subsidy through war, what’s a little national debt and an inconvenient cash-flow problem? But I checked the veracity of this attribution with the Churchill Archives at Cambridge University, and it transpires that the great man never said any such thing.”
But also, with a fair-minded, intelligent grasp of history, it reminds the “arts used to survive without public subsidy” hawks, that:
“To those who say the market should decide, I ask you where Mozart would have been without Emperor Joseph II, or Beethoven without Archduke Rudolph? And let’s not forget that this was the era when emperors and dukes were the state: it was the taxpayers of Austria who subsidised *The Marriage of Figaro* and sponsored the Missa Solemnis. Before these it was the Church which commissioned the great works of art, and that was when the Church was the state ...”
It's the sort of eloquent rebuttal you can't help wishing someone at the Guardian had come up with.
Yes, there's also the obligatory harumphing about “bland, monochrome or monotonous, almost Stalinist uniformity in the national artistic expression” and the old canard “where are the ‘right-wing’ plays, playwrights, poets or theatre directors?”, but on the whole, it's good to read something from the intelligent right which isn't just extolling the virtues of letting the market provide the art.
That said, it's worth noting in passing that his argument, “not all art brings home the bacon, especially if it’s a Damian Hirst dissected pig suspended in formaldehyde with quotations from the Quran tattooed into its ham. And for the state to subsidise, someone somewhere must assess the merit or virtue of Tracey Emin’s enseamed bed, and they won’t all be as discerning as Aristotle or Charles Moore.”
Is based on an entirely false premise. Both Hirst and Emin were sustained not by public money but by the private wealth of Tory advertising executive Charles Saatchi: the man who created Thatcher's Labour isn't Working election campaign in 1979.
If we were to draw a single lesson from the coverage of the arts cuts, it would be that no election has ever been won or lost on arts funding in the UK. Also, that these funds, when considered as a totality of the UK government's spend, are pitifully small. We also see that a vocal minority would like to give the impression that the wider public don't feel that they benefit from the 17p-a-week of their taxes which are spent on the arts.
While some have argued that the government's cuts demonstrate “Tory Philistinism”, I would suggest that given some of that party's fondness for even more libertarian principles, the 30 per cent cut to ACE is more simply an expression of far wider economic aims, combined with a need to be seen to be “doing something”. I would bet that there are plenty of right-wing idiots who would argue for a total cut to the arts budget without even thinking about what that meant. This being the case, we should perhaps count ourselves lucky there's still an arts budget at all.
Beyond this, though, the Philistinism here isn't primarily Conservative but English.
Because while we're counting ourselves lucky that we've still got an arts budget at all, what's crucial to remember is that Britain's arts budget is, and was, ridiculously small.
We should also remember, that subsidising the arts isn't inimical to right-wing government. I live in a country which has a right-wing coalition that spends €1.15bn a year, 3-4% of their national budget, on the arts. The combined arts budgets of Berlin, Munich and Hamburg would more than cover ACE's entire national budget.
The root problem behind the Tories' budgeting isn't philistinism but philosophy. Current Conservative thinking has it that the arts would be best provided by extremely wealthy individuals sponsoring the arts out of the goodness of their hearts, having had their wealth subsidised by the taxpayer. Like in the middle ages.
Given that the Telegraph, the Times, the Independent, the Evening Standard, the Mail, the Express the Sun and the Star are owned by precisely such wealthy individuals, it is little surprise that the coverage of the cuts in the mainstream media has been so one-sided. Or that there is encouragement of the perception that the English don't like the arts, and resent subsidising them.
Disproving these arguments is the first step toward better arts funding for the future.
And, while the ideological argument can't be disproved, it can be exposed as the least preferable of many alternatives, to the majority of people.
Being angry, name-calling, accusations of philistinism and “crisis thinking” can be rejected in favour of hard facts and cool logic.
This isn't a fight, it's just a sensible discussion, and one where all the evidence suggests that arts funding is an excellent idea. That point just needs to be made a bit more clearly now.