It is time to get tough with the anti-business arts elite
Rescue plan for theatres, galleries and cinemas must come with strings attached to end reliance on subsidy
Anthony Trollope. Charles Dickens. Joseph Heller, through the immortal character of Milo Minderbinder. Tom Wolfe and, of course, Shakespeare. But those few aside, there are hardly any writers or artists with any interest in or knowledge of either business or the markets. Most of the theatre, literary and arts establishment treats making stuff and earning money from it with barely concealed contempt.
And yet now that it is in trouble, there has been a clamour for a bailout. For real? Sure, it is just about possible to make a case for helping out the sector during an extraordinary epidemic. But it should also come with strings attached.
The arts can be helped through to the moment when theatres, concert halls and galleries can open up again.
Beyond that, they should be weaned off subsidies. In truth, the arts could use a crash course in markets and economics – and their work would be better for it.
With everyone else getting a cheque from the Chancellor, it was probably only a matter of time before the theatres and galleries got one as well.
Yesterday, the Treasury stepped in with an extraordinarily generous £1.57bn package of support to cover museums, galleries, theatres, independent cinemas, heritage sites and music venues. Of that, £880m will be in pure grants, £270m will be in soft loans, and £120m will go towards slightly Stalinist-sounding “heritage construction projects”.
It might be a little too much to hope that for so much free cash we’ll ever see a pro-Brexit play at the National, a celebration of great entrepreneurs at the National Portrait Gallery, or a giant installation explaining the spontaneous order of the free market in the foyer of the Tate Modern. But that kind of money might at least keep some of the more simplistic anti-Tory, sub-Marxist propaganda on hold for a year or two.
Of course, it is perfectly possible to make a case for a rescue. Music, literature and art don’t need an economic justification. They are either of value in themselves or not. Even so, our great cultural institutions are a major industry. An estimated 700,000 people work in the sector, and while some of the estimates for the wealth it generates might involve a little too much artistic licence (a recent Department for Culture estimate of £111bn added to UK GDP by creative industries seemed generous, to put it mildly), there is no question that it is worth a lot.
Britain is a world leader and that makes the UK a magnet for tourists, as well as making London, alongside cities such as Manchester and Birmingham, global hubs for business and finance. We would all be poorer without it. Theatres, galleries and music venues have all been forced to close because of Covid-19. Already, 350,000 workers, about half the total, have been furloughed and, when freelancers are added in, the loss of work and income is probably even greater than that. This isn’t their fault and until the scientists can agree it is safe for the buildings to open up again, there is not much that can be done about it. Rent still has to be paid, and premises maintained, and if teams are disbanded it will be hard to put them back together again.
And yet if there has to be a bailout, there should also be strings attached. In truth, the arts have become hooked on subsidy, and that has allowed an anti-business, anti-innovation, anti-market culture to take hold.
Sure, there are a few big businesses that are greedy and grasping, and there are private equity firms that strip assets and financially engineer the profits out of an industry. But there are many more major companies that are creating great new products, serving their customers, and paying staff and suppliers responsibly. Most entrepreneurs are trying to build something new and better, and the majority of small businesses are putting in incredibly long hours, and supporting their local communities, for relatively meagre rewards.
You would have to wait a long time to see any of that portrayed at your local theatre, independent cinema or art gallery. Business is always pitiless, companies vengeful and entrepreneurs, if they exist at all, deranged. Empathy, nuance and subtlety, the cornerstones of great art, fly straight out of the window when business is the subject.
It wasn’t always like that. Shakespeare was a founding shareholder in his own theatre company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and grew prosperous from its work. They even knew a bit about surviving epidemics – the company got through the London plague of 1603 by touring the safer provinces. Before the Second World War, culture was mostly self-funded, either through ticket sales or grants from wealthy benefactors. In the past 50 years it has become more and more dependent on the state.
The Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts was established in 1940 – when there was another national emergency on, come to think of it – and has grown since then into a network of state-backed support.
The Arts Council, with money from the Government and the National Lottery, has £622m to spend a year. Now the arts are getting almost triple that as well in bailout cash.
Is that going to improve anything? In truth, it was far better when the arts looked after themselves. Why? Because it meant writers and performers understood how the world actually worked. They knew about market forces because, just like the rest of us, they lived at their mercy every day. True, there is a case for maintaining buildings and companies through this epidemic.
But a rescue fund should also demand a clear plan for ending all subsidies. Once the lights go on again, the state cash should gradually be phased out. If writers, directors and artists knew a little more about economics and business, it might do them some good. And their work might even be better as well.
‘The arts have become hooked on subsidy, and that has allowed an antiinnovation, anti-market culture to take hold’
A woman attends a press preview of the Love, Desire, Death exhibition at the National Gallery London last week. Cultural institutions were given a £1.57bn package of support