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Michael Coveney: Cold Cuts at High Tables

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So, the National and the RSC (and the Royal Opera House) are taking big 15% ("real terms") hits in their Arts Council funding in order to help out the rest of the clientele.

But a similar percentage cut will bite much harder lower down the pecking order, where I'm sorry to see both Northern Ballet and Northern Broadsides unjustly punished, and note warily the same treatment for the Belgrade, Coventry and the Nuffield, Southampton.

Most shocking? The 43% plundering of Dance Umbrella, the halving of the Canterbury Festival's allowance, and the brutal singling out of the Almeida for a 39% cut, though that might encourage a less indulgent splurging of funds on set designs.

Talking of which, you wonder how much the National spent on Anthony Ward's monumental but meaningless dental surgery for Rocket to the Moon last night. And a quick glance down the programme credits suggest where savings might be immediately made: on fees for movement and fight directors (what movement, what fight?) and for a dialect coach who thinks anyone who speaks with an American accent just does bad stage Bronx.

On the whole, though, you have to say the Arts Council has managed this ugly business very cleverly. Most of the right people have the almost standstill treatment (11% cuts) over the next three years: the Bush, Hampstead, Headlong, Hackney Empire, Nottingham Playhouse, Polka, Tricycle, the Royal Exchange in Manchester, Salisbury Playhouse, Kneehigh, the ENO and Warwick Arts Centre.

And there are some startling positive decisions: huge bunk-ups for Punchdrunk, the Norfolk and Norwich Festival, Told by an Idiot, the Arcola and a notable increase for the Young Vic.

Edward Hall's Propeller is a new client with a quarter of a million pound nod per year, while Ed's dad, Peter Hall, has been snubbed at the Rose, Kingston, a real setback for a venue that has tried ever so hard without really winning over public or critics.

But overall, you still have to ask, why have the arts and libraries been singled out for cuts at all in this way? The amounts of money are so small, comparatively, in the national budget, that you wonder, with Nicholas Hytner, what sort of country the politicians want us to survive the economic crisis for. David Hare goes magnificently further in his Guardian comment today:

"What's happening to culture is what's happening elsewhere. The government is crewed by a galley of suck-ups hoping to catch the leader's eye with the daring of their plans... As always with Cameron's coalition, you can only pray that its incompetence will finally mitigate its spite."

And Richard Eyre points out that the government simply doesn't take its funding of the arts seriously. But no government ever has in this country over the past 60 years, and it's a miracle that we have the best theatre in the world as a result. The cynics might say that proves the government is therefore right not to take arts funding seriously.

Quentin Letts in the Mail yesterday unsurprisingly argued that the Arts Council should not concentrate on the adventurous and exploratory so much as the public don't want it. To which you can only reply, with George Bernard Shaw, that the public never knows what it wants until you give it to them. Arts funding surely has to follow where the artist is going, not the public, otherwise nothing changes, nothing improves.

But Letts also, more interestingly, argues that the avant-garde, anyway, is more likely to appeal to self-promoting patrons these days; which says as much about the state of the avant-garde as it does about the monied culture vultures behind them.

This also reinforces a strictly middle-class and metropolitan view of arts and subsidy. It's much more important that the Arts Council maintains its support for the great regional houses, the Hackney Empire and Theatre Royal in the East End, the Oxford Playhouse, Frantic Assembly and the wildly daring Jasmin Vardimon, a choreographer even the dance critics don't like all that much.     

And in taking on the Manchester International Festival as a new client with £500,000 a year, the Arts Council not only responds to artistic, civic and yes, avant-garde, initiatives, it also gives an invaluable green light to the private and corporate sponsors already lining up to support a venture as potentially exciting and important as the Edinburgh Festival first was over 60 years ago.

God is always in the detail. The Arts Council proves that it has got down close and personal with some of the smaller fry in the North West, too. The Octagon in Bolton and the Oldham Coliseum are both on about £650,000 a year; the first is now down by 4.9%, the second up by 5.8%, an indicator, perhaps, of comparative artistic merit, or general efficiency. You learn as much from a nudge in the ribs as a blow to the face.


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