Why recognising the true value of the arts will mean hard choices

Artists operate in a delicately balanced economy, where it can be very hard to make a living from artistic endeavour.  That is why public sector subvention is so critical, through financial instruments such as tax exemption, bursaries and grants.

But as public expenditure gets smaller and smaller, artists and artistic enterprises are now being squeezed so hard they are squealing.  In Ireland, the end to artists tax exemption is one of a range of cuts on the table.  In Britain, Tracey Emin is threatening to leave the UK if (and when?) we have to put the taxes up to 50%.

Public subvention in only one part of the triangle as the economy of the arts is also dependent on the forces of earned income- through sales, box office and the like and  private giving  – sponsorship, corporate and individual giving.

Unsurprisingly, corporate and private sponsorship is well down on the recent fatter years.  And now, the box office is beginning to dive in many theatres.  Although its too blunt to divide theatre into ‘entertainment’  (escapist, fun, easy) and ‘art’ (difficult, through-provoking, poetic, political),  West End theatre is flourishing while others are struggling including London’s Tricycle Theatre.  It receives £ 3/4m from ACE but, despite an additional £361k from ACE’s Sustain Fund, the Theatre is reportedly struggling because audiences are staying away from political or ‘art’  theatre and because of the drop in charitable donations.  This is a story which is unfolding across the British Isles.

We need to preserve the artistic capability to survive through recession.  We need to support artists in our communities, whether these are local, regional or national.  And that means that public funders must make hard choices.  They need to choose who and what to support, recognising they can’t support everyone.  The Arts Council of England is investing £40m through its Sustain fund and so far this is largely to support the most established of arts organisations from the Royal Opera House, the Halle Orchestra to Yorkshire Sculpture Park.. But the Tricycle story signals that this may not be enough and so funders will be forced to be ever more discerning about who to put into the lifeboats and who to leave to sink or swim, through changing their programme, merging, or other innovations which cost less.

We also need strong leadership and powerful advocacy.  In Ireland, the National Campaign for the  Arts  campaigning against cuts proposed by An Bord Snip and the Commission on Taxation, has evinced strong support from business leaders and artists, who confidently express the value of the arts and artists, including their contribution to reputation, employment, tourism, the broader creative economy and the all important national psyche.

What is critical about this is the championing of art and artists and expressing the high value that artists have for our societies, whether or not this is recognised through tax exemption or financial rewards.  As we move away from a value system which is based entirely on money, artists can take the lead.

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