Does the State Owe Artists a Living?

Tuesday 24th February 2015

Radio 4’s Front Row hosted a very interesting debate yesterday morning addressing questions such as: are artists owed a living by the state? What is the place of art in our lives? Is culture always a middle class luxury? And, do politicians ever take culture seriously? Hull’s Truck Theatre was the location, a suitable choice seeing as it is the 2017 City of Culture, and the panel was made up of a variety of different voices which ensured a lively debate: playwright Richard Bean, economist Philip Booth, sociologist Dr Tiffany Jenkins and dancer Deborah Bull, amongst others and audience interjections.

Throughout the programme, the discussion returned to the idea of what the purpose of arts and culture is. The case was made that the arts are beneficial to people both health-wise and in society whilst also attracting economic benefits. Of the nearly £4 billion of public money spent on culture every year, this puts £77 billion back into the economy. Equally, Rosie, the representative from the City of Culture scheme argued that through it, 1,300 more jobs in Hull would be created and attract big business. Economist Philip Booth contested this point saying that whilst there had been no research into the relationship between investment and culture, there had been such investigations into sport and this had shown that there is no connection between sport and the level of economic investment.

Moving past the economic arguments, cultural commentator Ekow Eshun argued that the point of the arts was not to please everyone but rather to prompt people to ask questions about life, existence and to challenge themselves.

An interesting angle discussed was from a school’s perspective. Whose responsibility are the arts? Headteacher Kevin McCallion from Brooksbank School noted that the accountability measures that Ofsted and league tables set out do not include the arts: English, Maths and Science, understandably, are prioritized. The Warwick Commission’s recommendation that schools cannot be marked as ‘outstanding’ without evidence of the school providing an excellent cultural education would just render the arts another tick box for schools.

Despite all of these expert opinions, I think that one of the pupils in the audience, Emma, touched upon one of the most important purposes of the arts: ‘it builds me up as a person.’ Giving space to creativity and performance in schools develops self-confidence in young people and builds the skills needed for employment: giving presentations, talking to clients and being articulate are among many desirable qualities that are developed through the arts. Deborah Bull backed this up: many of today’s jobs are about creatively solving problems so cultivating creativity in schools, especially, will create better doctors, scientists, politicians…

Nodding to this year’s General Election, journalist Martin Bright, said that he was worried that we would have no department of culture at all after May; the arts have no political traction. Predictably, Philip Booth, believed that the state should not intervene in the arts and even went as far to say that Great Britain would be culturally richer if this was the case. To this, Deborah replied, that we would not necessarily be richer, the cultural landscape would just look different: we would see a lot more of the standard repertoire and much less of new, contemporary works.

The state certainly has a role to play in funding the arts; it would aid the continuation of new repertoire, and the arts are a large part of our national identity. However, with many sectors vying for money and claiming their area is beneficial and deserving of government money, it is also vital that any funds are also supported privately.

To the future government of the United Kingdom, please consider the arts in your budget. Aside from all the economic, health, social and employability arguments, quite simply, life would be boring without them.

You can catch up with the whole debate here.

UK City of Culture 2017