“The idea that you can cut a £180bn deficit by slicing money out of the budget of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport is frankly absurd.” The words of an arts bureaucrat, theatre director, artist or writer with a special case to plead? No: Nick Clegg’s, in the election campaign. Now his coalition wants cuts for culture and sport, over the next four years, of between 25% and 30%, the greatest crisis in the arts and heritage since government funding began in 1940. With the ruthlessness of a blitzkrieg the coalition is threatening the stability of an entire system for cultural provision that has been built up by successive Conservative and Labour governments: a mixed economy of public and private support that has made Britain a civilised place to live, where all have an opportunity to enjoy the arts or celebrate our heritage, and have been doing so in increasing numbers. Of course, cuts are inevitable, but it is the size and pace that we challenge. Cuts on this scale cannot be absorbed by ‘efficiency savings’ alone, they must inevitably result in a much smaller number of galleries and theatres, fewer chances for young people to broaden their experience of life, and a savage reduction in support for individual writers, artists and composers. At a time when demand for theatre, music and dance has been rising, arts organisations will have to reduce their activities across the board. Free entry to museums and galleries has been a huge success, but we shall have to consider closing galleries, reducing outreach activities and shutting for one or two days a week. Expect fewer performances, less invention and much less work in the community. In some cases a vicious circle of declining audiences and reduced corporate and private benefaction will result in a slow, painful death because the core public subsidy is insufficient to sustain the halo of earned income and donations that we have all become adept at gaining. It will be the smaller, most innovative organisations across the country that suffer the most. In the 90s a hard-hitting BBC Newsnight report on Salford showed old people terrified to leave their homes because of the threat of attacks by roving gangs. In 1997 work on a new arts centre began with the aim of raising the cultural profile of the city and bringing new business and tourism into the area. The opening of The Lowry and the dramatic Imperial War Museum North has transformed the area to the point that the BBC is establishing a major centre of production in the city, inconceivable just 10 years ago. However, it is not just a story of economics or regeneration. Many West End productions and much of the talent have been developed in the public sector. Take a show such as Enron. Headlong (an Arts Council-funded touring company) commissioned the writer, Lucy Prebble, and worked in partnership with Chichester Theatre to shape the play. It was then co-produced by the Royal Court, subsequently went on to the West End, and is now touring on an entirely commercial basis. This close relationship between the public and the commercial lies at the heart of the success of the arts in this country. Ten years ago you had to travel to London or Edinburgh if you wanted to see significant works of contemporary art. Now the d’Offay collection is shown across the country and a string of outstanding new galleries have been developed: Nottingham Contemporary, Baltic in Gateshead, the New Art Gallery in Walsall and Towner in Eastbourne - and soon Turner Contemporary in Margate and the Hepworth in Wakefield - are exciting spaces offering a social and cultural mix that engages young people in the culture of their time. Camila Batmanghelidjh, the founder of Kids Company, stresses the importance of art as a way of capturing their attention. Last December George Osborne came to Tate Modern to tell us “We are deeply committed to the British arts sector. The arts play a vital role in our communities, helping to bind people together and create real social value”. Ed Vaizey, the minister for the arts, told The Times: “Far from wasting public money, the subsidised arts give back far more than they receive.” In January Jeremy Hunt said: “I want people to say that on my watch the arts not just weathered a very, very difficult period, but also laid the foundations for a new golden age.” Hunt is a thoughtful man who clearly values and cares for culture. The Coalition cannot intend to abandon the principles that have brought culture to millions. A 10-15% cut in cash terms over four years would be a challenge of the kind that arts organisations regularly surmount; more than this will threaten the whole ecosystem, cutting off the green shoots with the dead wood, reducing the number of plays and exhibitions, discouraging innovation, risk and experiment and threatening the ability of organisations to earn or raise money for themselves. You don’t prune a tree by cutting at its roots.
Nicholas Serota is Director of Tate.