Highlights of YouGov arts debate with Harriet Harman

Earlier in the month, at an event organised by YouGov in association with the Free Word Centre, I debated the issue of taxpayer funding of the arts with Harriet Harman, Shadow Culture Secretary; Sir Peter Bazalgette, chairman of the Arts Council; and Jude Kelly, Director of the South Bank Centre.

The debate was chaired by BBC Arts Editor, Will Gompertz, and the short highlights video above gives a flavour of the robust discussion we had, which was inspired by YouGov polling of both the general public and “opinion formers” regarding the degree to which taxpayers’ money should be subsiding the arts. You can see the research online by clicking here. I seemed to be very much the lone voice on the panel standing up for taxpayers against Establishment figures who seemed unconcerned about the need to find savings from the arts budget. It was especially alarming to hear the Arts Council chairman declare that “there will always be projects that you can take the mickey out of and sometimes they won’t come off because that’s what taking risks is about.”

I’m afraid, Sir Peter, when you are taking those risks with hard-earned taxpayers’ money, you have an immense and awesome responsibility to spend every penny wisely. Shrugging off my concerns and saying that we should accept that some of that money is always going to be heading down a drain is simply not good enough.

Our recent Bumper Book of Government Waste highlighted a number of examples of how the Arts Council has squandered our money on projects that don’t stand up to public scrutiny. They were not even risks with taxpayers’ money, since it was known exactly what was being funded: when the project in question is, for example, a £95,000 skip decorated with fairy lights in a square in the middle of Brighton, it is totally unjustifiable.

Incidentally, the video clip above did not include my rebuttal to Will Gompertz’s assertion that “individuals are much more inclined to be philanthropic if the Government [ie the taxpayer] is also supporting institutions”. I pointed out how the Royal National Lifeboat Institution was created independently in 1824, but starting taking government grants when it fell on hard times in the 1850s. Yet for every pound the government was putting in, the RNLI actually found it was losing thirty shillings (£1.50) in voluntary donations, because people could not see why they should be supporting a state-funded institution. As a result, the RNLI stopped taking taxpayers’ cash in 1869, and it has flourished ever since.

Similarly, before the Arts Council was founded in the late 1940s, the arts flourished in the country precisely because brilliant British musicians, artists, playwrights, poets and so on had to appeal to people – and not politicians or bureaucrats – for support. The bigger the subsidy they receive from the state, the less responsive they will be to the demands of the public.

And rather than making the arts more independent, that subsidy actually creates dependency around a single donor, whose tastes are often going to be informed by the political whims of the moment. If anything, isn’t that actually diminishing artistic freedom rather than enhancing it?

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