A MUCH-PUBLICISED conference on arts subsidy, organised by the Institute of Contemporary Arts in July, had the deceptive title of Making It Happen. Its nine debating hours were flanked by two events of remarkable insignificance. In his opening address, Kenneth Robinson, Chair of the Arts Council, called for a 'quantum shift' in the level of government spending on the arts, by which he meant that more money should be given to the Arts Council, not simply to meet rising inflation but to increase the size of the block grant in real terms.

But Robinson did not indicate a desirable size for this 'quantum shift' or why the government should be so generous, apart from making the general point that the arts contribute to civilised living. It sounded, in short, like a standard piece of special pleading: and was treated as such by the Minister in overall charge-not the Minister for the Arts, Lord Donaldson, who was not present, but Mrs. Shirley Williams, the Secretary of State for the Department of Education and Science. In her closing speech, Mrs. Williams argued reasonably, or so it seemed, that every section in her department wants a quantum shift of some sort or another-the teachers, the scientists, the researchers, the universities and primary schools; and that the arts could not expect preferential treatment.

She was sympathetic to the problems of artists, but everybody had to realise that money was in short supply and that social priorities must be borne in mind and in any case the government had done a splendid job up to now and would continue to do so. Nevertheless, the arts could not expect quantum shifts just like that; and so on. It was a standard refusal. You or I could have written her speech, just as we could have written Kenneth Robinson's.

In between these two non-events, and filling much of the remaining eight hours, was a fine display of politics by numbers. You will not be surprised to learn that Norman St. John Stevas, M.P., was sympathetic to the problems of artists too, and as Opposition spokesman on the arts, he advocated more support from industry. Lord Radcliffe-Maud, an expert on local government, whose report two years ago advocated that the 'new local authorities should be the major arts patrons of the future', praised the work of the local authorities in establishing the library service, and used this as an example of how enlightened councils could support the arts in the future. "We must not think", he said, 'of the artist as a special kind of person, but of each person as being a special kind of artist'. The arts were a natural extension of education, and he drew attention to those 'incredible children'. the Young Musicians, discovered in a BBC competition.

There were splashes of light red. Mrs. Renée Short, M.P., who chaired a committee which produced the Labour Party's discussion document on the arts, was on the platform. She wanted to see a Ministry for Arts, Entertainment and Communications, which would embrace the professions covered by this title, from broadcasting and journalism to folk music. This Ministry would be controlled at its highest level by a cabinet minister but, in practice, and at the grass roots, by a large number of local boards, on which various relevant bodies would be represented-councils, education committees and delegates from the arts professions. She did not mention the problems which others saw in this scheme, such as the threat of a totalitarian control of culture. I am as much worried by the details of the document as its general drift. I find the idea that import controls should be imposed on books from abroad to stimulate publishers at home, alarming: while the proposal to take major works of art from public galleries and hang them in housing estates seems silly in the extreme.

There were patches of diplomatic grey, from Roy Shaw, the Arts Council's Secretary-General, and a dab or so of Liberal orange. Lord Beaumont, Liberal spokesman on the arts in the House of Lords, chaired the afternoon session; while, as the person who drafted the latest discussion document, the Liberal Party's The Arts-Change and Choice, I was allowed a brief speech from the floor. One or two journalists asked me whether there was an establishment conspiracy to keep me from the platform. There was no conspiracy at all. My paper had been published a few weeks before the conference assembled but long after the main invitations had been sent out and the chief speakers had accepted. It would have disrupted the conference's arrangements for a late-comer like me to have been elevated among the other spokesmen; and for my part, bearing in mind the general calibre of the platform speakers, I was rather relieved not to be counted as one of their number.

Furthermore, I felt myself so much at odds with the tenor of the debate, with all the philosophies, tones and attitudes involved, that only a wearing. hot-blooded, day- and perhaps night-long argument could have begun to have expressed what I regard as the main points. Such a battle would certainly have crumpled the suits of the 500 or so arts administrators assembled in the hall. It was too civilised an occasion for a mental rough- house.

Let us take the simple matter of 'quantum shifts', a sad, lack-lustre, civil service phrase in itself. Of course, Mrs. Williams was right when she pointed out that every profession within her department would like to see a quantum shift in government spending and that there were social priorities involved. What she and other speakers failed to mention was the scale of these quantum shifts. A quantum shift in the government spending on primary and secondary schools would require additional public money of some £2,000 million or so. A quantum shift in arts spending would require an additional £50 million. In more human terms, a quantum shift in the average pay of teachers would raise their salaries from just under £5,000 a year to nearly £6,000. A quantum shift for authors would raise their average earnings from about £750 a year to perhaps £2,000.

Such a comparison, however, raises various political issues, by which I do not mean just party political ones but major questions as to the nature of our society and how technically it should be run. Most teachers are public employees in that they are hired by the education authorities who are responsible directly for their well-being. But authors, like painters, actors, musicians and artistic directors, are usually self-employed. Should governments therefore feel themselves as responsible towards those individuals who, through the exigencies of their professions, become dependent upon public money, as they do towards those who are public servants?

Feliks Topolski, the painter and cartoonist, once argued before a Labour Party committee that artists should be regarded as public servants, on par with teachers and doctors within the National Health Service. But might this not lead to a situation where only artists whose views are roughly in accord with establishment opinion are employed? Everybody in the ICA conference seemed well aware of the dangers of a state-controlled culture. Roy Shaw stressed the importance of the 'arm's length' principle, whereby governments, national and local, preserve a diplomatic distance from the artists whom they support. The Minister for the Arts is not directly responsible for the doings of the Arts Council, which is a 'quango', a 'quasi-non- governmental agency', and thus not accountable to Parliament or anybody else. The Arts Council has sought to devolve some of its powers of patron- age on to the Regional Arts Associations, whose initial purpose was to provide independent funding bodies, with money raised partly from central government and partly from the local authorities. The local authorities are not obliged to support their Regional Arts Associations; and in any case, there are two levels of local government, each with their own powers of arts patronage. The arts organisations supported by public money from any level are usually expected to be charitable organisations. 'non-profit-distributing', which means that the artistic directors are accountable to unpaid. part-time and amateur boards. These boards of councillors, local eminences and founding fathers, not to mention funding fathers, have taken over the role of the old private patrons of the arts. One sentiment generally echoed throughout the ICA conference was that the role of the local authorities should be increased, either by exhorting them to do more for the arts or by proposing that there should be a statutory minimum rate, raised by local authorities for arts support. Again, sad to say, I was one of the few odd men out, perhaps because so many of the delegates to the conference came from the Regional Arts Associations and the Entertainments Committees of various local authorities. Nine years ago, in researching material for my book, Theatre Outside London, I first started to have doubts about the involvement of local authorities in the running of theatres; and these qualms in the intervening years have not diminished.

There has always been a marked difference between the generous, enlightened councils and the mean, interfering ones; so that many artistic directors watch local election results with considerable apprehension lest the wrong people should be elected. This concern often has its political dimension, in that Labour councils are thought to be more 'generous' to the arts than Conservative ones, who believe in protecting the ratepayers and in private enterprise. From instincts of self-preservation, the arts can become politicised in a party sense. There should really be only two major concerns in an artistic director's mind-what he wants to create and how he can convince the public that what he is doing is of great interest. If an artistic director has to look over his shoulder at the composition of his local council, he gets distracted from his job.

A statutory minimum rate would remove some of these fears, but not all of them; and it would bring other problems in its wake. Our rating system. to begin with, is archaic. It does not raise money fairly from all sections of the community, because it is not organised like that. It is not a local income tax nor is it based on the fairer system of site value rating. Some local authorities can raise substantial sums of money through the rates, while in other areas, the yield is small. Across the country, the rates have to be supported by grants from central government, which account for 9/16ths of the total income.

Rates, therefore, cannot be considered separately from the country's taxation system as a whole. They are not purely independent sources of income. Nor are the local authorities necessarily wise patrons of the arts, and it is wishful thinking to suppose that, with more responsibility, they could become so. As one delegate to the conference dryly remarked, with a little more help from the local authorities at Stratford, the Royal Shakespeare Company could reach the artistic standards of the Alhambra, Bradford.

Local authorities are also subject to pressures which may not be exactly political but which are not non-political either. There is an understandable urge to provide civic monuments. Perhaps the greatest mistake in arts patronage since the war has been the way in which local authorities (and national ones) have been encouraged to build arts centres and theatres, which have proved expensive to run and have absorbed money which could have been spent on supporting artists within existing buildings. Throughout the country, there are now modern, well-equipped buildings lying idle because they do not have the annual subsidies to run them. They stay open with austere, cost-saving programmes of amateur operettas and wrestling. The arts should be protected from local councillors who, on hearing the word culture, reach for their copies of Municipal Entertainment.

Furthermore, artists and artistic directors have become increasingly separated in recent years from their prime source of grant income, the government, by layer after layer of amateur boards. An artistic director has to account, firstly, to the board of his own arts organisation, which will apply for grants from the local entertainments committee, the county authorities, the Regional Arts Associations and the Arts Council. There may be five or six well-intentioned Boards, composed of hardworking councillors and other appointed representatives, each advised by voluntary advisory panels, consisting of academics, journalists, lawyers, and sometimes fellow artists, who work on a part-time unpaid basis. The Arts Council's London home, 105 Piccadilly, is a house for enlightened Boards.

There are no less than 51 members on the RSC's governing board, from the Earl of Warwick downwards. Where, I wonder, do they all sit? And what on earth can they have to say to Trevor Nunn, the RSC's artistic director, or find time in the general debate to say it? And if they have nothing much to contribute, what is the point of having the Board at all? The answer to that question is that they provide a powerful-looking supporters' club, with an impressive array of names which will encourage governments to look benevolently upon them. If that is so, however, what about those organisations which, for geographical or social reasons, cannot command the same degree of establishment support?

It is sad that the arts should still require this kind of almost feudal protection. It can also be depressing for professional artists to feel that their livelihoods are being decided in those dim council chambers where amateur board meets amateur board in a spirit of universal goodwill and almost total ignorance. But there are other, more serious, consequences, some practical, some aesthetic and some organisational.

Most boards rightly recognise that they are not in a position to comment in detail on the artistic merits or otherwise of the work which they are supporting. They may do so 'off the record", but what really concerns them is whether the organisation is 'well-run' and whether it serves certain kinds of social purposes. These criteria may be sensible, they may be enlightened and worthy: but they can also lead easily to some philistine restrictions.

Let us take, for example, the phrase 'community arts', bearing in mind that the greatest percentage increase in Arts Council subsidy for the 1977/78 financial year has been to the community arts. The principle behind this phrase is a worthy one-that artists should be encouraged to work within local communities, stimulating interest in the arts through their very presences. This phrase, however, contains some tricky concepts indeed. In one sense, all artists work within communities-theatre directors to their audiences, authors to those who read their books, artists to those who see their pictures. If you start to suggest that some audiences are more 'community' than others, sheer parochialism becomes acceptable as a criterion for deciding whether this artist should receive money rather than that one. Artists need to discover audiences sympathetic to their work, which may be on a national or a local scale. They should not be awarded grants simply because they are resident in some local library or other.

Let us take another example. Most arts organisations these days are 'non-profit-distributing': but what happens if, at the end of the year, they show a profit? That causes problems. When the National Theatre company under Olivier showed a profit during the 1967/68 season, mainly the result of urgent cutbacks in the preceding year, they were faced with several choices to hand back the spare money, to receive less grant money for the following year or to spend the money quickly on some project. They spent it on opening what is now the Young Vic. The cardinal rule for all artistic directors is always to ask for more money than you need and always to spend the entire grant. This leads to bad housekeeping, for it would be wiser to allow directors to accumulate reserve funds, partly so that they can weather bad times and partly so that they can tackle more ambitious and costly projects. The present system leads to wastefulness and timidity: and philistinism, for directors are deterred from attempting the great gambles which may be central to their artistic, as well as their commercial. visions.

There is also the question of 'rogue' artists, those who would fit into no kind of civilised system. Every country has them and they cause all kinds of problems for the authorities. I once asked Kay Unrah, who had worked with the Berliner Ensemble and now runs a small, part-amateur, part- professional but excellent theatre company in Canada, why she had not applied for grants. She answered that to receive grants you have to put forward a sensible looking programme for the forthcoming year, with regular productions at regular intervals. But she knew that her production of a Blake musical would take at least nine months to create, whereas her production of John Arden's The Happy Haven would take a mere three weeks. If one took less time, it would be ruined; if the other took more time, it would spoil. There was no subsidy system in the world, she argued, which could cover such disparities. Very few would also allow amateurs to work along with professionals, which is why the Polish authorities had difficulty in subsidising Kantor's work or the British authorities, Lindsay Kemp's. And what about productions which might be regarded as 'immoral"? Local authorities, in particular, are cautious with any art form which could be considered as scandalous. But the arts of the past have often contributed precisely by defying conventional ideas of propriety. The subsidy system can easily become a kind of censorship by bribery.

Most boards and local authorities are well aware of these problems, which is why there is a tendency to off-load them on to the shoulders of professional administrators, whose loyalties are towards local government and often come under the aegis of entertainments committees. The lack of balance between the roles of the administrators and the artists is reflected not only in the greater powers which administrators possess, but also in their greater incomes; and this disproportion has gone beyond the merely inappropriate and is now trespassing on the domains of social injustice.

Librarians in the service of what Redcliffe-Maud calls a glory of local government, earn on average 6 or 7 times as much as authors. The only person at the Wigmore Hall who does not get paid for working there is the soloist who gives the recital. An artist is currently engaged in a dispute with a city art gallery, which invited him to present a one-man exhibition of his etchings. Apparently, they asked for some 25 works, which he duly completed and had framed, a costly business. They only hung 13, however, and those in an ill-lit gallery, behind some building work, so obscurely that even the gallery attendants did not know where the exhibition was. When the etchings were returned, he claims a number of the frames were damaged. The artist was understandably angry, but I would not mention this incident, probably the result of unfortunate misunderstandings all round, were it not for one small matter to which the artist did not object. The gallery was not acting as a sales gallery: they were not allowed to do so by law. Nor were they hiring or renting his etchings. Everybody in that gallery, from its director to the attendants, got paid-except the artist: while the artist was so conditioned to accept such exploitation that he regarded the invitation to exhibit as a compliment.

If the arts were like any other kind of profession, the circumstances under which artists work would offer the classic pre-conditions for social, indeed political, unrest. But the arts are not like other professions. No M.P. would lose his seat because of the artists' vote: no government would be threatened by a mass strike by artists, and in any case, artists are too individualistic to take easily to this sort of corporate persuasion. The unions too are weak, because union strength ultimately derives from the public demand for the product. The national need for coal puts the miners in a strong position; but art is not this kind of primary product. Everybody knows when he or she is cold or hungry; but not everybody recognises intellectual or cultural starvation. A dissatisfaction can be felt, without knowing either the cause or the cure.

Nevertheless, even on an economic level, the case for nurturing the artist can be made. It has been calculated that the Edinburgh Festival brings in more than £16 million to the city, for an outlay in grants of under £700,000 annually, a remarkable rate of return. British Tourist Authority surveys have indicated that tourists rank visiting theatre and concert halls second only to general sightseeing as their main motive for coming here. Britain is lucky in that, for historical reasons, it is the centre for an English-speaking culture; which provides a background against which our diplomats and business men can work. It may be impossible to measure the way in which British ideas, values and even the language have been spread through the arts to other countries; but there are other societies, also with rich cultures. which cannot rely upon their classics being known outside their frontiers. From their standpoint, our good fortune is as remarkable as our lack of appreciation of it.

These are not the only, nor the best, reasons why the arts should be nurtured. As we move away from a society where sheer physical survival is the dominating drive, we are forced to consider the kinds of lives which we want to lead, in the widest sense, the qualities and values in living. The pleasure derived from the arts is still the best reason for ensuring their survival in a thriving form; but the arts can, and do, serve another purpose by providing an area in society where different ideas and values can be considered, compared, thought-through and appreciated.

Nobody at the ICA conference, however, seemed unaware of such general arguments in favour of supporting the arts. There was, though, an air of complacent unreality to the proceedings, as if all the problems could be solved with a bit more money and a few more boards. This unreality was exemplified by Redcliffe-Maud's remark, echoed by Shirley Williams, that really everyone was an artist potentially and that the professional artist was just somebody who was lucky or foolhardy enough to earn a living from what to normal persons counts as a hobby. The lines of argument exemplified what I would regard as the chief weakness of modern methods of subsidy the attempt to translate old-style patronage into modern terms. The Liberal Party's discussion document, Change and Choice, challenges these arguments. It is, I believe, a radical document in that it questions the roots, not just the branches and leaves, of the subsidy debate; and offers a different philosophy.

Why do the arts need subsidies at all? There are societies where the arts receive no public money at all, just as there are societies where the arts get much more, in real terms, than they do in Britain. In the 1900s, we had no subsidies, but it was a time when the arts flourished. The real reason why subsidies are needed today is very simple-the government controls about 60% of the national income, and what is spent on our behalf by governments cannot be spent by us as individuals. In the 1900s, the government controlled less than 10% of the national income, and so it was possible for the arts to be financed through the box-office and the sale-room. These circumstances no longer exist. We may be richer materially as a society, but the individual's control over how the money which he earns is spent, is less. We cannot therefore begin to talk about whether the arts are a minority interest or not. We do not know, and have no means of guessing. For someone receiving an average national wage of £60 a week, with a wife and two children to support, the arts still are a luxury which he cannot allord. Can he buy books these days-at £5 a copy-or take his family to the National Theatre regularly? In the old days, the purpose of patronage was to support those sections of the arts (such as grand opera) which could not be self- financed but which were undoubtedly of interest and value. Nowadays, the prime purpose of subsidy must be to compensate artists for the unfortunate consequences to their trade caused by the centralisation of the economy. In the drift towards the corporate state, artists are very likely to get stranded; and it requires a considerable amount of political will to keep them afloat. If this will be present, it can also be exercised with such enthusiasm that the artist loses his independence and becomes sucked into the state bureaucracy. Any sensible arts policy, therefore, has to operate within these two limits-it has, firstly, to compensate the artist for consequences of a centralised economy, and, secondly, it has to do so in such a way that the independence of the artist is not threatened.

The degree to which our economy should, or should not, be centralised remains the leading political issue of today. It reflects the conflict between a centralist or a pluralist state. In Britain, the socialists remain the party of centralisation and the conservatives, of pluralism. From a Liberal's point of view, this great, and undoubtedly important, debate can easily become a vicious circle because it is loaded down with unverifiable dogma. Liberals see society as being the accumulation of many small social units, families, villages, towns, firms and industries, which are bound together by certain elements which they hold in common, such as a language, a currency, a common law and perhaps a culture. The government acts as a service industry. It cannot create wealth, but it can help others to do so; and its purpose is to provide those connecting links between the small units and the wider social good. Under some circumstances, such as war or famine, the service principle of government may entail a centralisation of national resources. Under other circumstances, it may require a relaxation of central control. What matters is the understanding of the circumstances.

The same principle applies to an arts policy. The government cannot determine what arts should flourish around the country and which should not. It is absurd for a hundred or so people in London, or five hundred arts administrators around the country, to attempt to determine tastes and values in this way. The function of an arts policy is to enable, not to determine; and the only people who can encourage and convert the public into a love for the arts, are artists themselves. Local and national authorities cannot wave wands or subsidies which will miraculously transform a dead theatre into a living one. Only the artists can do so, through the quality and excitement of their work. The aim of arts subsidy is to enable them to do so.

The Liberal Party's discussion document therefore proposes two basic changes in the way in which arts subsidies are calculated and administered. The first is that a certain 'fair level' enabling grant should be given to arts organisations around the country, whose size is determined by the extent to which the government controls the national income. It is proposed that the level should be within 15 to 10%, less than the government's control, so that it would mean, currently, that arts organisations would receive about 45% of their required income for the year through subsidy. If the economy were de-centralised, the subsidy level too would fall, but, with more money in private pockets or in the hands of industry, it would be expected either that seat prices rise or that more industrial support could be sought.

As it stands, this proposal is innovatory. Variations of the principle, however, are commonplace, in that in some countries, you can deduct any money spent on the support of the arts from your income tax. If the arts were made substantially or totally tax-deductible, then it would provide the equivalent of a 40% subsidy. The trouble with the support of the arts through tax relief is that it encourages rich man's art, art as a means of tax avoidance, the proliferation of private collections and growth of sub- scription and expense-account theatres. The fluctuating subsidy level meets this objection.

How this "fair-level of subsidy should be administered occupies much of Change and Choice. In different arts professions, it has to be applied in different ways. The principle operates simply in the case of theatres, but with more complexity in the fields of literature and the visual arts, through such methods as Public Lending Rights. I do not propose to summarise these details now, but to turn to the second basic change, which is that, wherever possible, the subsidies should be given directly to the artists, by- passing the current hierarchy of amateur boards. This involves ignoring the (by now) artificial distinction between profit-distributing and non-profit- distributing companies; and also presenting an alternative to the Arts Council.

It is proposed that the Arts Council should be replaced by an Arts Development Board of twenty-five members, of which twenty should be elected through the arts professions and five should be government appointments. The various election methods are discussed in Change and Choice. but the overall intention is that there should be four representatives each from the departments of Drama, Music, Literature, Film and the Visual Arts. The five government appointments would consist of representatives from the Departments of Education and Science, and of the Environment, from the British Council and the British Tourist Authority, with a chair, a Prime Ministerial appointment, who would act as an arts spokesman in the House of Commons. There would be no Minister for the Arts, on the grounds that the spending on arts subsidy is never likely to reach the level to justify an independent Ministry. To have a junior Minister in a larger department, such as that currently run by Mrs. Shirley Williams, separates the arts from the Treasury. The 'fair-level" basic grant would need to be debated through Parliament, and, once accepted, would require no special Ministerial attention to support.

The presence of a Minister can also lead to the mistaken impression that the arts are something which are handed down by a government to a grateful people, as a part of education; and it can result in the arts becoming a plaything of party politics on a national, as well as a local, level. The Arts Development Board would be on par, as a professional body, with certain industrial authorities, which receive public money but which are not subject to government interference, or at least not in theory. By proposing these changes, the Liberal discussion document is, in fact, looking forward to a time and a society in which the arts are not treated as just a higher form of incidental amusement, patronised by well-intentioned amateurs with their hearts elsewhere, but as a skilled occupation whose success contributes, not peripherally but centrally, to the well-being of the country.

September 1978