A satellite debate on the state of subsidy to the UK creative industries was held at the Cockpit Theatre on 14 November as an extension of the Battle of Ideas festival, a celebration of free speech involving hundreds of speakers in discussions around the world.
Debate chair Dave Bowden began by referencing culture secretary Maria Miller’s recent speech on the economic value of the arts and the battle to ‘keep the philistines from the gates’. His panel of speakers, who were asked to discuss whether this battle has been successful, included the editor of Gramophone magazine Martin Cullingford, writer Stella Duffy, head of Arts Admin Artists’ Advisory Services Manick Govinda, Live Art Development Agency chair Cecilia Wee, new City of London Festival director Paul Gudgin and playwright and theatre director Jonathan Holmes.
Speakers were divided on the purpose of arts funding. Wee argued that subsidy was currently not focused enough on the production of art but rather on all the ‘superfluous stuff’ that goes with it: the venues, cafes and gift shops that are leading to the ‘yummymummyfication of culture’. It was also suggested that Arts Council England could be more risk-embracing, and that funding should be used to assist grassroots organisations and new writing. However, as Holmes countered, subsidising buildings and established organisations can have very tangible results and provides support and opportunities to artists and smaller societies.
The panel was also asked if funding cuts could encourage the arts to justify themselves, forcing artists to look towards austerity as opportunity. It was mentioned that decreased reliance on government subsidy has encouraged organisations to try new methods such as social media marketing and crowdfunding, which increases the link between artist and audience and can democratise arts giving. But, as Wee reminded, ‘there is no free money’ and even alternative methods of sponsorship carry expectations.
But the big question was access: Should subsidy be used to make art accessible for all or does this reduce its value? The general consensus was that the arts are still overly class-based in the UK and that we need to alter public perception by increasing the presence of arts in the media and addressing the London funding bias. It is also important to fund arts education, Duffy added, as without it children are likely to be ‘locked out’. If the arts are a public good, perhaps the priority should not be keeping the philistines from the gates but encouraging them in.