Ten years ago, when I became director of the National Theatre, I was plunged into a fascinating and lively debate about the purpose of tax payers' investment in the arts. The Labour government had become increasingly instrumental in its vision for the arts and expected, in return for its funding, measurable outcomes in the diversity of our audiences, in our educational outreach and in the social benefit of our activities. I, like most of my colleagues, had some sympathy for the then government's aspirations. Arts patronage has never come without strings, and the demand that we should be as inclusive and accessible as possible seemed preferable, for instance, to the glorification of the Medicis or the worship of Joseph Stalin. However, it felt necessary in 2003 to push back against what felt like an increasing tendency to assess the artistic experience purely on the basis of the makeup of its audience, and many arts leaders and practitioners rediscovered the case for the arts based on their inherent worth.
Our conversations with government were productive, and many of the wilder excesses of instrumentalism disappeared. Successive Secretaries of State seemed very comfortable to talk about the arts as valuable in themselves, and central to a civilised society. It did not seem in those days that it would become necessary once again to fight for the very idea of government funding.
Over recent months, we have been asked by government to make a case for the arts based on the benefits they bring to the economy. Since this seemed like the only game in town, my colleague Nick Starr and I made the case in an article in the . We pointed out that, according to a recently published report by Nesta, the creative economy employs 2½ million people in this country and is 10% of the overall economy; growth in employment in the creative sector runs about four times the average. Growth in the UK is going to rely on innovation; we have a highly interlinked creative economy of which, almost uniquely in international terms, the arts and culture see themselves as a part.
War Horse started as an experiment in our Studio. We spent about £50,000 on its development, and about £500,000 putting it on. In the last four years it has made the NT £11m. The lesson is not to ask the question, how do we create the next War Horse? It is rather to continue funding the NT Studio where much of the most commercially successful stuff starts life. This is why the West End has largely outsourced its need for the new to the subsidised sector, as essential to their business model. They can't see how you would otherwise develop a Matilda or a Curious Incident of the Dog In the Night-Time. The director and nearly all of the cast of the recent James Bond movie Skyfall (which took over a billion dollars at the box office internationally) are alumni of the subsidised theatre. Tate Modern attracted 5.3 million visitors last year, many of them tourists attracted to Britain by our arts and heritage. And although we balk at describing Shakespeare as Britain's leading brand in the rest of the world, it wouldn't be untrue. We declared ourselves ready to help the Secretary of State develop a policy that genuinely recognises the return on systematic investment in the arts.
Whether or not our argument was thought to be persuasive, the threatened 10 or 15% cut to arts investment in the most recent spending round failed to materialise, and the Chancellor's 5% cut was greeted with some relief. In the context of current government policy, it would perhaps be churlish to point out that by 2015- 16 the Arts Council will have been cut by 35% in real terms since 2010. But it can't be denied that we are entering very perilous times, particularly outside London where individual and corporate giving has yet to make anything like the kind of impact that it has in the capital.
The National Theatre must now become ever more dependent on the generosity of its supporters. It is our phenomenal good fortune that we have such committed and generous individual donors, corporate sponsors and supportive trusts and foundations. Without their help, our repertoire would have shrunk, our outreach would be a fraction of what it is, and the work we do outside of our three theatres – through our Learning department and at our Studio – would be under severe threat. I could not be more grateful to all of them, and we are all aware how much more asking we will have to do over the coming years.
Under these circumstances, it may be necessary to go back to basics in the argument we make for ourselves. No matter how economically productive we are, no matter how much value we provide educationally, no matter the strength of our work in bringing together the widest possible audience – in the end, we work here and you come here because we all believe that the theatre is transformational in itself. It challenges, it inspires, it elevates, it educates, and it enlarges the spirit of everyone who wants to make it part of their lives.
This statement is reprinted with kind permission from the National Theatre's annual report 2012-13