The double 50th anniversary of Radio Three and the Arts Council in 1996 should have been a time for reflecting on the achievement of state subsidised culture in Britain. Instead it was another year of complaints about cuts. John Tusa, director of the Barbican Centre, says that the arts establishment has been so absorbed in the language of business that it has forgotten why we need the artsby John Tusa / January 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
The budget came and went. The worst the arts feared did not happen; there will be no draconian cut in funding, just another year of steady haemorrhage as the cash for the arts fails to compensate for the rate of inflation. It could have been much worse; many feared it would be. It could have been so much better. As it is, every arts institution, ground down by years of relentless underprovision, will make do. Meanwhile the great British arts debate-do we really want to fund them at all?-rolls on, illuminated over the past few months by two 50th anniversaries.
The Third Programme’s 50th anniversary was properly and widely celebrated in 1996. But none of the tributes expressed any confidence that today’s BBC would create a Radio Three of the existing kind from scratch, still less anything remotely resembling a Third Programme of the kind on which William Haley, the then director general, so confidently chanced his arm. Few of those praising the Third’s birthday, myself included, bothered to conceal their fear that Radio Three would be lucky to exist in a decade from now, or that the existing funding for the BBC’s orchestras (a bellwether of cultural commitment) would survive the decade.
Even more gloom surrounded the quieter 50th anniversary of the central pillar of public funding for the arts-the Arts Council of Great Britain. Instead of dwelling on 50 years of success, the annual news conference of the Arts Council of England turned into another blistering attack on Treasury cuts in funding, led by Grey Gowrie, the council’s chairman.
Despite the very real financial problems facing several important arts companies the picture is a complex one. I do not propose to discuss here the lottery, which is adding about ?300m a year to the ?420m of public money which already goes to the arts in Britain. The lottery is not a panacea, but it is a subject in itself. Neither do I intend to argue here about funding models-about whether the American model or the continental model is preferable. The American system springs from a view of republican citizenship which has no equal in British society. It cannot be transplanted. Similarly, the continental model, where even conservative governments assume that generous state funding of the arts is an essential expression of the idea of the state jars against more individualistic British sensibilities. The federal president flies to…