What the American Left Could Face in Arts Funding if the U.K. Tories Win

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Today, U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown will ask Queen Elizabeth II to dissolve Parliament and elections for a new government will be set for May 6. The Conservatives’ in the polls over the beleaguered Labor Party is shrinking; a minority government, the first one in decades, is still a distinct possibility. Indeed, the British electorate is, if anything, even grumpier than the American electorate at the moment. It’s quite possible voters could turn decidedly anti-Labor when the time finally comes to vote.

Should the Conservatives win, the situation for arts funding in the U.K. could well turn dire. The last Tory government, especially during the reign of Margaret Thatcher, was hardly friendly to the arts; there has been a small, strong string of articles in the Guardian during the last two weeks praising Labor’s long “investment” in cultural infrastructure since Tony Blair’s took over the government back in 1997. It’s a subtle hint, to be sure, but the fact is that eventually the Conservatives will come out on top — if not in this election, in the next one, and almost certainly if a whisker-thin Labor-minority government should prevail this time around. And when Tories do come back into power, one of their targets will unquestionably be arts funding. Even Lyn Gardner’s March 25 Guardian post is up front with the truth: “…if the books are to be balanced, whichever government is in power is going to have to find ¬£30bn of cuts over the next five years.” She hyperlinks, too, to the much-discussed document Cultural Capital: A Manifesto for the Future, which avers “Investing in Culture will build Britain’s Social and Economic Recovery,” which lays out in fine detail the fiscal-impact argument for the arts in the U.K. No doubt it’s a right and compelling argument at that, but just as Republicans in the U.S. never allow mere facts to deter them from advancing their agenda, any new Tory government is likely to dismiss such a “manifesto” as so much socialistic poppycock.

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Instead, the document Tories would probably bring to bear was also covered by Gardner back on March 17, in a post that was given a frightening — that is, for British artists weaned on the public teat — headline:

Adam Smith Institute’s proposals could mean curtains for UK theatre
Plans by the rightwing thinktank to replace arts funding with a voucher system could kill innovative theatre stone dead

This, in essence, is Adam Smith Institute idea:

…Author David Rawcliffe proposes a new system of funding in which artists would no longer be subsidised, and subsidy should be distributed directly to consumers: everyone in the country would receive a yearly non-transferable voucher (at current funding levels, worth ¬£11) that they could then spend on the event of their choice. Arts producers would exchange the voucher for cash. He argues that “the arts council system of government support for the arts is an outdated, centrally-controlled, bureaucratic nightmare that is expensive, unfair and ineffective. The objectives of arts subsidy would be fulfilled far more efficiently by a post-bureaucratic solution that empowered citizens, and compelled the arts establishment to meet their needs. A voucher system is exactly that.

Gardner profoundly and vociferously disagrees with the whole thing:

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…There are good arguments for giving communities a say in how subsidy is distributed, and which artists and projects should receive it (the Arts Council has shown an interest in South American models), but Rawcliffe’s suggestion that “the definition of good art would be that which people wanted to see, or that which private patrons wanted to fund” turns art into a kind of popularity contest. Such an approach to funding would kill our thriving and innovative theatre culture stone dead – the same theatre culture that gives such a good return on the investment it attracts.

In a world where government subsidy is abolished, our cities and towns would be full of crumbling, empty theatre buildings. People would lose their jobs and the local economy would suffer….

But here, I would gently intervene, is the problem: The British left, beyond rallying behind their manifesto, has thus far done a completely inadequate job of addressing how the gargantuan imbalance in the government budget is to be dealt with in terms of the arts. Indeed, the attitude of the arts appears to be: cut from somewhere else, anywhere else, we do not care. In grave and uncertain economic times, that unrealistic. The fact is, I would wager that Arts Funding: A New Approach will start looking awfully good to British taxpayers hungry for bright economic tomorrows of their own.

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What does any of this have to do with U.S. politics? After all, you say, whereas the equivalent of hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on U.K. arts subsidies annually, federal appropriations for the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts is sitting at about $160 million and not set to rise much, if at all, according to President Obama’s proposed budget.

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But if we factor in the money managed and distributed by the 56 state arts agencies across the U.S. — per the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, that’s about $360 million — and then factor in the arts budgets of municipalities, such as New York City and Boston, now you’re probably comparing apples to other apples. If and when Republicans wrest control of Congress and start looking for budget lines to slash, how do we imagine arts funding will fare? I would argue that Arts Funding: A New Approach is as much a road-map for American conservatives, and the American left ought to start thinking about what the consequences of that might be.

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Obsessed with the primacy of the market, it would be a no-brainer for the GOP to conclude that audiences — that is, the arts market — should determine what art is most successful. And anyway, ask yourself this question: Can a time of true fiscal belt-tightening ever arrive in Washington, D.C. (not to mention most state capitals) without bringing along with it a stark, wholesale reconsideration of our public arts-funding system — and the nonprofit business model itself?

Sound dire? Gloomy? Wildly improbable? Perhaps. But whether the Republicans score big gains, medium-size gains or small gains this November, eventually the harsh realities of the American budget deficit are going to have to be dealt with. Ditto the U.K., whether the Tories win next month, next year, or within the next decade. How closely will we be watching? Not as close as we should, if our history and our hubris are any guides. An ocean may distance America from its ancestral motherland, but right-wing economic politics know few such boundaries.

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Adam Smith Institute’s proposals could mean curtains for UK theatre

Plans by the rightwing thinktank to replace arts funding with a voucher system could kill innovative theatre stone dead