Are The Arts Cuts All That Bad?


Written by Chris Wollfrey
25 Monday 25th October 2010

Shadow Chancellor Alan Johnson claimed that the cuts outlined in the Coalition government's Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) were not motivated so much by economic necessity as by “ideological objective”, claiming that the “deficit deceivers” had the perfect cover up for a reduction in the role of the public sector.
Many could argue that it was the continuation of Margaret Thatcher’s project to introduce a free market and dismantle the prevalence of a welfare state first introduced by Atlee’s government between 1945 and 1949 and kept secure by Labour and Conservative governments alike until 1979. Many would also argue that, whether motivated by an economic deficit or not, such cuts in public spending – and the sanctity of the idea that not all concepts can be subject to the commercial market – are a necessary and progressive step toward a fairer, more competitive and more efficient society.
In that context, Chancellor Osborne’s cuts to arts funding make for intriguing reading. The Arts Council England (ACE), which has lost in effect a third of its budget, will suffer a loss of around £100m in four years; the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, from which its budget is apportioned, will see a loss of £300m in the same period, amounting to a 24% cut by 2014.
Publically the government line is that these cuts are progressive – spending on the NHS will go up in real terms, the Department for Education was told individual school budgets would see protection – and would safeguard those public intuitions that could not be tested by the rigours of the commercial market.
Art will not be one of them. In effect, says the current government, artistic production must fight to be commercially viable, and what is commercially viable will survive; by cutting the budget of the ACE and the UK Film Council, this CSR ensures that more artistic projects will have to rely on a producer-consumer model than on a system of institutional funding that, it could certainly be argued, produces a ‘purer’ kind of art than one that has to be considerate of commercial interests.
In that sense, cuts to arts funding might not be such a bad thing. Very little ‘famous’ art – that is to say, art that gets in the newspapers, and so to the public at large – has connected with, or enthused the general public in recent years. How many people are disillusioned, amused, angered or contemptuous about the prevalence of The School of Saatchi? Are that many people really that interested by the Tate Modern’s permanent collection? Does anybody reallylike art school students, except other art school students?
And then, of course, we realise that the Saatchi sponsored YBAs like Tracy Emin and Damien Hirst have been among the most commercially successful artists of all time, and that’s been part of the reason for a negative reaction to them.
The ACE will now have to make sharp decisions about what projects and jobs they cut; it is expected that they will make a flat 10% cut from all ACE-funded projects and institutions, and it is not likely that the likes of Saatchi, Emin and Hirst will be the ones to lose out. Of course not. They are commercially viable.
So is the Tate Modern. Given the reputation it has, is would not suffer from a lack of public donation or wealthy sponsors. And yet – as it is protected by the new CSR in that all museums and public art galleries will remain free – money is unlikely to be taken away from the Tate in the budget, when it could be; its reputation, plus its protection in the CSR, should more than disqualify it from further support in the Department of Culture, Media and Sport’s revised budget, as art projects feel the squeeze.
You’d suspect, though, that it won’t be the grassroots projects that retain the protection they deserve: a period of defense from the perils of the commercial market, a period in which to nurture talent, though of course all art that aims for a wider audience eventually goes to the commercial market – but those institutions that are already commercially viable. It seems quite unlikely that, after the 10% flat rate slash, forward looking and smaller projects like Auto-Italia and Space won’t feel the bite; and it seems likely that what remains of the ACE will support the most commercially viable projects.
Indeed, they will be forced to. With reduced budget the ACE will no doubt need to look to the safest projects if it best wants to survive. After all, a reduced Arts Council is better than no Arts Council, just as some ‘protected’ art projects are better than none. But, as they will have to be safe, the ACE will no doubt have to stick with canonical, well known and established art – however much the general public might dislike it and however much it might show the ACE as out of touch with the general public – because they will remain, though battered by cuts, as the last defense of publically available art. Better a free Tate Modern and no grassroots projects than no grassroots projects and no free Tate Modern too, right?
Of course, this is disastrous for art. Johnson has a very salient point when he says the cuts are ideological, and that ideology is that all should be subject to the laws of the free market. And the laws of the free market are defined by commercial concerns. Commercially conscious art makes for conservative art.
These cuts represent 'a significant impact on the cultural life of this country' Arts Council England Chief Executive Alex Davey says. And he’d be right.    

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