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

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Business Comment - MATTHEW LYNN

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

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