Samuel West: Is Maria Miller leading the arts into a trap?

In response to Culture Secretary Maria Miller’s first keynote speech on the arts, actor/director Samuel West, chair of the National Campaign for the Arts, has written the following (republished with kind permission from artsfunding.ning.com):

Samuel West
Samuel West

Maria Miller yesterday gave her maiden speech as Culture Secretary. The main thrust was this: that the arts must play their part in our economic recovery by proving their profitability.

At first glance the speech seems encouraging, but look closer and it’s impossible not to see it as a threat to cut arts funding further.

Of course artists are grateful for the opportunity to make our economic case to the Treasury. Again. But are we walking into a trap? The spending review is at the end of June. Why not ask before? Are the arts to be penalised because the case for their economic benefit hasn’t already been made? And it’s not only too late, it’s too narrow. We need Miller to make other arguments as well: to shout about the ability of art to educate, to delight and to keep people mentally and physically healthy.

I know the Secretary of State believes in quality as well as in economic success. She must understand that nobody tries to make art that is unsuccessful. And nobody knows what will make money. Trying to make art that will make money produces worse art. Worse art makes less money. It’s totally backwards.

At the heart of this speech is a contradiction. It sounds like Maria Miller is saying “let’s trumpet the economic value of art together”. But if she really believes the arts are central to growth, why is her ministry presiding over cuts? Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr point out in their excellent article that all this talk of growth will be undermined by “an arts policy that adds up to little more than a reduction in investment”. Where is the strategy to grow a return on that investment? Cuts to a profitable sector are not savings, they are losses.

One part of her speech seems to undermine all the rest. It bears quoting in full:

“Some in the sector say that arts funding should be treated as a special case. They argue that Government support for the arts is less than 1% of total Government funding; and that’s a drop in the ocean. Culture cannot be seen in isolation at a time of unprecedented economic challenge. Everyone has to play a part in our efforts to reduce the deficit, my Department is no exception. Do we want to be seen to inspire our children or leave them with a mountain of debt?”

I’d like to say two things about this remarkable paragraph.

Miller is literally correct to say that government support for the arts is less than 1% of total spending. It’s also less than 80% of total spending. The actual figure is 0.05% of total spending – one half of one tenth of one percent. 20 times smaller than the figure Miller quotes. It’s TINY.

More importantly, follow her argument ‘if you don’t tolerate this, your children will inherit a debt mountain’ and we’ll never complain about anything. Cuts are not inevitable. Germany REALLY believes the arts are central to growth, and has recently increased arts funding by 8%.

I complain about cuts because I don’t want our children to inherit a cultural desert. I complain about cuts because I see my successful, underpaid, underfunded industry crippled by an inability to plan for the future. I complain about cuts because I’m sick of seeing the things I Iove, the things that make this country civilised, bled to death to pay for the greed of the banks.

The assumptions implicit in this paragraph suggest to me that deep down, Miller doesn’t believe the arts should be funded by the state at all.

But let’s suppose I’m wrong and go with her main point: that the arts must be profitable. At what point do you measure profitability? Maria Miller supported the campaign to save her constituency theatre, the Anvil in Basingstoke. Good for her. Did the last play that The Anvil put on make money? Perhaps it didn’t. Then what? Charge more for tickets? Do a different play next time? But perhaps the play was brilliant, or provided amazing training for the next James Corden or a writer or director who will go on to produce a blockbuster. Perhaps the play was adored by a small town, which saw it cheaply. What then? Because their play didn’t make money, no more plays for them?

Funding the arts should have only one purpose: to make better art easier. Easier to see, easier to do. It’s art for our sake; for our potential, our imagination, our sense of self and of our species. This can’t be easily bought, or got in any other way.

The arts happen to be a profitable industry. But there are some things (education, public health) which provide so much good to the people that they are worth paying for whether or not they make a profit. Economists call them ‘merit goods’. My list of merit goods would include cheap access to the arts. Maria Miller’s list clearly wouldn’t. Fair enough. But then why become Culture Secretary? The best place for a mindset like hers is the Treasury. And next time, can we please have someone in the job who knows the value of the arts and not just the cost of them?

– by Samuel West

Chair of the National Campaign for the Arts