Well, what an awful day for the arts.
For those of you who've been buried to the mohawk in a sandpit all day (you know who you are), here's the thing. In the last Comprehensive Spending Review, the Government cut funding to Arts Council England (ACE) by 30% and necessitated cuts to “front line” organisations of 15%. We can ponder why the Government is so into the language of war later. For now let it be said that the Arts Council had all its Regularly Funded Organisations re-apply for the new status of National Portfolio Organisations - and this morning the announcements came in about which Organisations formed part of said National Portfolio.
If that doesn't explain why it was an awful day, maybe this will. Today 200 arts organisations lost their funding completely and plenty more took a massive hit. Standstill funding was greeted with desperate gladness, despite being at least a 4% cut in real terms, as inflation races unemployment for the skies. Even those lucky enough to see a substantial uplift could feel little more than relief and profound twinges of survivor's guilt. Why them and not us? How can I rejoice this 'victory' when surrounded by the corpses of my comrades?
So maybe the Government's language of warfare does become appropriate when we in the arts remember we are all on the same side. Yes Dave, we're all in this together. We've spent the last weeks walking arm-in-arm across no mans' land and today, with the grim inevitability of Greek tragedy, dozens of us were massacred by enemy machine guns.
And let's be clear: the Arts Council are not the enemy here. Told to cut funding to arts organisations by 15%, I don't really see that they could have handled things a great deal better. Sure, I'd quibble individual decisions and there are plenty of losses to mourn. Perhaps some organisations were cut rightly. But we're all in this together. If we start squabbling over who ought to have been funded and who oughtn't, we chuck sticks at the conscripted gunner when we could sniper the general.
That the Government have forced this on the Arts Council isn't simply philistinism, although it's that too. It isn't just bad economics, although it's that too. It isn't even merely the ideological attachment to a state small to the point of being molecular, its only functions being to nod through tax cuts to billionaires and hound benefit claimants. Although it's that too. Sam West put it better than I ever could in his fabulous speech at the Hyde Park rally on Saturday: “it's not just a failure of Government, it's a failure of imagination.” They simply can't imagine the effects of their cuts on people with less money than a solicitor in Kew.
Arts organisations have today made me very proud. There's been a little bit of tactless celebration, and a little sour grapes. But overwhelmingly, the sense has been one of relief, tinged with sadness for those we've lost. Now we know, now we can all move on. We will work together. We must work together. Regional theatres are pretty much mandated to work more closely with emerging companies and just about everyone's behind that. We're all in this together And one of the main things we will do, all of us, together, in this, is fight the hideous Government that put us here. Some of us, Mr Cameron, are more in this than others. Some of us, Mr Osborne, don't even know what “in this” looks like. You may have weakened many of us individually but you have strengthened us collectively. And I've been overwhelmed and delighted by how many organisations have taken very clear aim at you in their press releases today.
I explained some of what was happening to a group of students this morning. I told them that in five years, when they're working for theatre companies, their employers will remember today and shudder. At one point I nearly cried. And when I'd finished, one of them said “that is bare shit, man”.
30-year-old that I am, I wondered about the provenance of the term “bear shit” - whether it refers to the kind of shit that is hard to find in the woods, a particularly rare and awful kind of shit. It turns out that the last bit is right. Bare shit, a particularly rare and awful kind of shit.
That's what we're all in together, and that's what we'll take aim with. Cameron, Osborne: duck!
As some of you know, I rewrote the below post for the Guardian blog. You can find it here.
I got one response that's worth reproducing. It and my counter-response below:
Personally I'm happy to fund the arts cos they're awesome but the arguments here are misleading. It basically says that the government win out of arts, because they make twice as much in VAT from the arts as it costs to fund them. Maybe s...o but that argument only works if you assume that if i had a tenner which i wanted to spend on arts, but couldn't because they don't exist, then the government miss out on £2 in tax. Surely not true - i would just go and spend that tenner on Nando's or clothes, so the government still gets its £2. In fact I might spend it something taxed more aggresively like a pint and 20 cigarettes where the government would get about £6.
It's a good point, as far as it goes. But I'm not arguing that we should fund the arts simply because they're profitable. There are far better reasons for funding them regardless of their economic impact. I'm just trying to counter the assumption that arts subsidy loses the government money. As it doesn't, it's not subsidy, it's investment: since they don't lose money, why *not* maintain the funding? Especially given all the other, much better, reasons for supporting the arts.
While I'm about it, here are two more of my favourite financial factoids:
Tax evasion and avoidance cost the UK £95bn a year. Imagine a tall man. The arts cost £0.47bn. Beside the man, a spider.
Last year the Queen's estate rose in value by £25m. In the same year, funding the arts for the whole of the North West cost... £25m!
Funding the arts costs everyone in Britain 17p per week. That's equivalent to half a pint of milk from Tesco. The arts earn the exchequer around 35p per person per week. That's equivalent to a pint of milk from Tesco. Quite aside from all the reasons the arts are A Good Thing, they're straightforwardly, unequivocally profitable. I thought that was the sort of thing this government cared about.
Did you buy a coffee on the way to work today? That's equivalent to your share of arts subsidy until the end of September. If it's Starbucks, til Christmas. Have a pint last night? Have one less tonight and you've covered your share of arts funding until New Year's Eve. And if you buy a full tank of petrol, that's enough to cover your share until after this vicious government has been booted out.
It's not a lot.
On the other hand, everyone in Britain's share of the bank bailout was a one off payment of 708,333 pints of milk. Each. Or to put it another way, 7,100 beers. Each. And that's at London prices. If you drink four pints a night, that's enough to keep you merry every night until the next election. It looks like we're going to need it.
The difference between my share of the UK's arts subsidy this week and my share of the bank bailout, is the same as the difference between half a ruler and the length of the UK. Including outlying islands.
The arts are affordable. And they're profitable. It bears repeating that the exchequer reaps from the arts double in VAT what it has sown in subsidy. A pretty strong business model.
Not that the best thing about the arts is that they're inexpensive and offer a return. If we stop being profitable, that doesn't mean the government should stop funding us. But for now, these are the best arguments we've got against a government so clearly motivated by straightforward greed. The other arguments still stand, and here they are put better than I ever could.
Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will