I have just chanced upon a copy of the Review section of the Observer of a week ago. In it there is a double page spread, entitled Is this the best way to run the arts?, which is about how various performing enterprises have now got grants they used not to have or who have had their grants increased, and how various other performing enterprises have had their grants cut or abolished.
As is the way in politics, the ones who are suffering are the ones now making the most noise. They blame horrid men in suits who do not understand art. Politicians in other words.
This almighty row has been brewing since just before Christmas when the Arts Council announced the most radical funding shake-up in its history: 194 organisations and individuals would have their grants substantially cut or completely withdrawn. While some cuts may be sensible, others seemed barely thought through, such as the proposal that the Northcott theatre in Exeter lose its entire grant (£547,000) from 2009. Clarie Middleton, acting chief executive, heard the news the day before reopening the theatre after a major refurbishment – funded in part by an Arts Council grant. ‘It’s like planting a bulb but as soon as a shoot appears, you cut it off,’ she said.
Other victims include new writing powerhouse the Bush (a 40 per cent cut), the London Sinfonia chamber orchestra (100 per cent) and Sheffield’s Compass Theatre Company (100 per cent), which had ‘absolutely no idea the company was in a precarious position with Arts Council Yorkshire’ and has since had to cancel a scheduled tour.
But if you want money from politicians, you ought not to be surprised when those same politicians take an interest in the money they are giving to you. After all, they were the ones who stole it, and they have to justify this thievery and to ensure that its proceeds are distributed in a way that satisfies their supporters and quiets their critics. True, the men in suits probably do not understand art very well. But these artists could do with a crash course in politics. They are getting it.
Politicians, especially the ones making the running now, like inflicting a radical shake-up every so often. To feed their friends, they are willing to make enemies, and their “cuts” (i.e. decisions to stop giving you money) are often hastily decided rather than “thought through”. And if they do decide to slash or abolish your grant, why would they warn you about this? As for those among them who are genuinely trying to shun mediocrity and to fund only “excellence” etc., how are they supposed to know what that is, or worse, is going to be next year or the year after? Arts funding is either politics, or a lottery.
The bottom line here is: if you place yourself at the mercy of politicians, they are all too liable to behave just like the politicians they are and show you no mercy at all. The way to avoid being at the mercy of these horrid men in suits is not to depend upon them for any of your income. Oh, it takes far longer to build up an arts enterprise which relies on voluntary support from eccentric or socially aspirational donors, and from customers who are actually willing to pay in sufficient numbers for your efforts. But once you have done this, you are far less vulnerable to politics, and you will have to waste far less of your life doing politics. True, the politicians might still shut you down or rob you blind, blinder than usual I mean. We must all live in the shadow of such threats. But at least, if you are not getting a government grant, closing you down ceases to be a routine decision that the men in suits are liable to make at any moment.