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Oct 5 / Simon

Subsidy and the matter of opinion

A UK survey reveals a divergendce in attitudes toewards public funding of the arts between the genral population and sleected ‘opinion former’. Simon Tait examines the implications for the need to raise awareness of the benefits subsidy confers

Should there be public funding of the arts? Of course… er, well, no, actually…
According to YouGov that have just carried out a poll on the question, the positive view belongs to what are called UK Opinion Formers (who get initial capitals, henceforth OFs), the negative one is the general public’s (who languish humbly in lower case, and for our purposes will be both promoted and contracted to the GP). That is, the survey records that 65% of OFs believes in arts subsidy, but only 28% of the GP do.
It occurs to me that if the Opinion Formers really were forming others’ opinions, 65% of the general public would think as they do, so perhaps they are more accurately Opinion Holders who happen to have a forum to propound their opinions in. But this is not a frivolous issue, it could be deadly serious.
Asked what the primary benefit of publicly funded culture was, the OFs’ top answer, 67%, identified “social and cultural benefit through giving access to the while population”; that was the GP’s top answer too, but they were less sure, only 42% ticking that box.
And while almost two thirds of OFs think arts funding should be shared equally between the public and private sectors, almost a quarter of the GP think arts should be entirely funded by the private sector, and three-quarters of both groups think there should be cuts in line with other government departments. It’s this GP section that believes the arts are a significant boost for tourism, the best reason for subsidy, while the OFs want government funding to ensure talent is developed and that all of us can have our spirits lifted by the taxpayer-funded arts.
Both sides in the YouGov poll think that arts subsidy is “poorly distributed”, but it is the GP that seems to be at odds with the generous funding of opera when it is an artform enjoyed by relatively few taxpayers. But then, opera needs (and gets) private funding too, which OFs believe is encouraged by public support: the GP, on the whole, does not agree that subsidy has any influence on private giving to the arts.
And so it goes on: to put it simply, the OFs represent the theoretical, the GP the practical; the GP directly feels the effects of recession in their purses and shopping baskets, the OFs are paid to be objective.
The YouGov poll is very general, too, and doesn’t take into account the enormous effect of local authority arts funding, and the way arts administrators respond to what they see as the most propitious path for both their audiences and their funding sources.
It is poignant that the Lowry’s influential and pioneering artistic director, Robert Robson, should have died suddenly recently, just after the appearance of the YouGov survey. Robson and his CEO Julia Fawcett had turned around the fortunes of what had become a £106m white elephant of an arts centre, beleagured in the Salford Quays where the city’s ambitions of revival had not come to anything two years after it opened. It almost closed again. Robson and Fawcett concluded that they had looked to international success too optimistically and had ignored their own doorstep, so that they turned to the local public with a publicity blast and a pledge to “keep its (the Lowry’s) feet in Salford Docks”. The public responded in their thousands, and following their vote with their feet, the BBC chose the Quays to plant their behemoth of a Media City. The Lowry has a footfall of nearly a million a year now.
In Leicester, The Curve has become the city’s arts centre, open 18 hours a day providing ticketed and free entertainment of all genres. It is a national portfolio organisation so it gets a government subsidy of almost £2m, and it needs every penny. Leicester is one of the worst conurbations in the country for either corporate sponsorship or private arts philanthropy, and though The Curve struggles with its limnited national support, its success with the East Midlands public is due to the ingenuity of its executive and artistic directors, and the support of the local authority.
The truth is that most of the culture-consuming public are largely unaware of what is subsidised and what is not, and not through sheer ignorance. In the modern zeitgeist, “mixed funding” has never been more mixed, with public funding coming from national, regional (though less so since the abolition of the regional development agencies) and local agencies, and private funding sources now a spectrum of private giving, corporate sponsorship, and trusts and foundations.
The government is eager to increase the input from the private sector, and tends to use the word “philanthropy” as a cover-all word that conceals the fact that corporate sponsorship, and to be precise what the Labour government encouraged as “corporate social responsibility”, or CSP, as a subsiding factor. No OFs refer to CSP any more.
The funding soup is confusing and the public are happily enjoying the arts in greater numbers than ever before in this country – which happily coincides with another truth, that we are in a golden age of creativity – blissfully unaware of the financial breakdown.
The theatre owner and producer Nica Burns was recently named Private Businesswoman of the Year, sponsored by the super-accountants PriceWaterhouseCoopers and created to celebrate the best of private business. That the theatre should be considered the apogee of commercial achievement is a significant endorsement, and nobody would say that Burns is not worthy. But she never lets the opportunity go to emphasise how much the commercial industry she is at the forefront of owes to subsidised theatre, which allows for experiment, trains and nurtures talent and gives the first modest showcase to what can become a major earner for the economy when fly-eyed producers like Burns exploit them.
OFs see that happening all the time, but how much is the GP aware of it?