Should Theatres and the arts still receive public funds?

West End producer Sonia Friedman recently wrote a column in The Daily Telegraph declaring that without government intervention 70% of theatre companies would close. Under such an eventuality, the likes of Friedman assert, our culture would become very much poorer. This has been the argument for government subsidy of art and museums for decades—Sir Humphrey in the political sitcom Yes Prime Minister convinces the Minister for Administrative Affairs, the ignoble but otherwise charming Jim Hacker, to carry on subsidising theatres after arguing that it does not matter if people actually go, but that the government provides subsidies to show what it approves of.

But with demands for more government money should come an examination of whether subsidies should exist at all for these purveyors of art, an alarmingly large amount of which is seen by a vanishingly small number of people given the dominance of the major institutions in the marketplace. This does not just go for theatres, either. museums, galleries, zoos, castles and country houses all court taxpayer funded payouts. Yet the entire sector experienced a 9% increase in visitors in 2018 and, before the government decided halting the entire economy constituted sound fiscal and social policy, further growth was reported. Now may be a good time to remind the much-vaunted social institutions of this country that the day when they will be required to stand alone may actually materialize since we are living through the second economic collapse in under twelve years.

Breathless accusations of iconoclasm from what Brendan O’Neil and others casually refer to as the ‘chattering classes’ would doubtless follow the dawn of commercial reality across much of our cultural elite. Removing subsidies would be no bad thing. The leading players already have large audiences, many of whom have meaningful disposable income (try getting tickets for the Proms) and provide return custom. London’s West End is hardly struggling to get bums on seats. Last year our collection of theatres out-earned Broadway and in 2017 topped 15 million visitors for the first time. Attempting to argue for more government money, Friedman in her Telegraph column opined that British theatres attract annually 34 million visitors, twice the attendance the Premier League enjoys. The performing arts, it seems, are capable of brining in the masses when they feel like doing so, undermining the case for subsidies even during normal times. And this is the basis of the argument for removing government from art: people will pay to see what they like, and the marketplace will adapt accordingly.

The government grant model is not helping our leading museums, either. Too many do not charge visitors for entry. While in London last year I visited the city’s major museums. Not one charged an entrance fee, but all commanded many millions of pounds from government coffers. Donations were possible to give upon going inside, yet while waiting in lengthy ques it was clear few people were coughing up money for an experience that for most would last hours. Allowing these places to charge money, instead of merely requesting it, would likely be a financial gain. 5.5 million people visited the Natural History Museum during 2018/19; for 2019/2020 grand-in-aid is to be £46.1m, which will most likely account for nearly 60% of total income.

Having not visited for nearly twenty years it came as a surprise to still see TV and computer displays that were out-of-date when I was still high-school student. The place urgently requires updating to keep with the times; compared to the Science Museum just around the corner it looked somewhat deprived of life-giving cash. After trooping around both, it is clear the opportunities for the Science Museum to raise money via additional interactive attractions are being suitably exploited. Other major tourist destinations should follow likewise.

Ending government handouts and demanding consumers pay to get in would force the arts and museums industry to work according to commercial reality. For the long-term future this would be a better bet than the current model. Transitioning to a more commercially orientated future should not be done quickly—such change is substantial, and revolutions rarely succeed in attaining their original goals—but it should happen. Being self-sustaining makes asking for money from the government during a pandemic a great deal easier to justify. 

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