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Any Way You Want To Slice It

April 6, 2011

Some entries ago I noted that with limited cash to go around, I’d rather doctors got it so that they, rather than mime artists, would be staffing hospitals. Now, with the full extent of the cuts to the Arts revealed, I wanted to return to the subject.

For me, there are two purposes to giving grants to the arts. The first is ‘conservation.’ Unless snagging Dr Who or Rainman for the cast, it is fairly unlikely any commercial producer would put on “The Merchant Of Hamlet” in a West End venue – even if it is on the school curriculum that year. As for Marlowe, Kyd etc, perhaps with the Harry Potter cast, but again unlikely. For these plays to be seen and learned about by future generations, some subsidy is required.

Second purpose for me is ‘reflection.’ I’ve just finished reading the script of NT production “The Holy Rosenbergs” and (whatever the merits of the writing) again it is something that doesn’t feel commercial in that it won’t provide a particularly ‘feel good’ evening. On the other hand, it does reflect the insularity of a community and the circularity of a global argument rather well. It’s also a ‘local’ play, set just 45 minutes from the National Theatre by tube, again underlining the usefulness of having funds to explore a local community.

There must always be a case for allowing every local community access to modern and classic arts. Closing local venues without an alternative for miles, and axing touring companies that willingly work a church hall in lieu of a proper stage has to be wrong – even if one of the clowns has to be hired for the local A&E department after his final curtain.

On the other hand, I did watch “Anna Nicole Smith The Opera” last week… As the excellent Terri, boss of Whatsonstage.com blogs this week, it isn’t right for somebody working in the arts to state that some cuts are deserved because they didn’t like the work. It shows a cavalier attitude towards the jobs and efforts of fellow sector workers, and just isn’t on. Still, I did wonder if this was particularly money well spent – given that the cost of one diva for 16 performances probably equalled two theatre-in-education companies for a year.

I’m not talking here about the argument that those in the subsidised audiences at the Royal Opera House are basically ‘white and middle class’ – my answer to that one is ‘so what – they are the taxpayers, and everybody else seems to get something from the public pot, so why not them too?’ My argument is about the use of resources to best effect.

I guess my own problem is that I’ve always been in the ‘commercial’ sector, with only a couple of expeditions into non-Arts bits of the ‘public’ one. Those excursions left me surprised at how those who don’t have to consider how the cash was earned will spend it. Working practises like purchasing and staffing were entirely different, and the one phrase I never heard was, “we can’t afford.” It was all about “spend it, or lose it in the next year’s budget” – resulting in new ideas half-baked to try and keep the cash flowing.

The Arts of course, and particularly the subsidised sector, has in part got to be about experimentation that isn’t otherwise commercially viable. Risky work, like the adaptation of a classic French novel as a musical, can be explored and end up commercially exploited. Though you can argue another musical about cats on a rubbish dump was 100% commercially funded, we have to remember that today it probably wouldn’t have happened – certainly not in the same way – as the cost would be too high. At the other end of the scale, a translated Latvian play about their internal politics is probably an equally unattractive commercial event, but arguably equally worthy of being seen in London.

What I am saying is that we need to look carefully each time at quality. Theatre is one of the last preserves of bringing audiences together to experience a single emotion – and for that alone it deserves preservation with public money. Rather than endless yardsticks like “outreach” which, as a journalist recently observed, seems a bit of a waste if the reached parties aren’t interested; I feel that the way forward is to fund on simple satisfaction ratings. A meritocracy introduced into an otherwise socialist approach. Arts literally for the people, with their money producing work they are happy to see. Worth a thought, Mr Hunt?

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