Defending Subsidy


by Neil Nisbet

It was suitably ironic that during the largest showcase of the strength and quality of UK based dance making at British Dance Edition in Liverpool, Arts Council England was finalising the funding decisions that would see some companies continue to develop and grow as others get left behind to fend for themselves.

Putting the confusion as to why some dance organisations and companies are deemed more worthy than others to one side for the moment, with every new funding announcement the arguments for and against government subsidy of the arts are rekindled.

There are many people in politics, in the media, in the general population and in the arts who take the view that the government has no place providing money to the creative sector. They cite the free market, other funding priorities like education and health care and a decision making process within ACE that is fundamentally flawed and quite possibly corrupt on some levels.

The Free Market

Let’s take a look at the free market first. The argument goes that if something is good then people will want to see it and therefore it will be successful and financially viable. TV shows, movies, musicals and record labels do it all the time. They put money into things, publicise them and some of them are successful and some of them aren’t. The market takes care of the difficult decision making process because only the really good work will be successful in both commercial and artistic terms. Right?

Spending money on other priorities is the next most common argument for removing government subsidy. Everything else in this country is failing, or appears to be failing. Education, health care, local government, infrastructure, etc are all terrible and the only way to fix those things is by spending more money on them. The arts cost money and what does it matter if we take money away from them to pay for more important things. Right?

The third argument is that Arts Council England is nothing more than a government policy shill with little or no grasp of reality. They’re over bureaucratic, spend too much money on themselves, secretive, slow, and spend more time dodging phone calls than they do actually communicating with people. Right?

Point by Point

All of the above would be good points if any of those things were true but they aren’t. Well, some of the points about ACE might be true but I’ll get to them in a bit.

The “let the market decide” argument overlooks one of the fundamental flaws in letting the public at large decide what should and should not be created. A quick glance at the ratings for the most popular television shows in the UK reveals a litany of soap operas, light entertainment programmes and poorly written drama productions. Many musicians would say the same about the music charts, and many film makers would concur that the popularity of many movies is in no way connected how good they actually are.

Popularity and financial viability are poor indicators of quality. ‘Eastenders’ is a popular UK soap from the BBC is broadcast 4 times per week in prime time. There are no seasons it just runs and runs (and has been for decades). You have to ask yourself just how good the writing and acting on a show can be when they make 208 of them every year?

The music business is the same. Hugely popular television shows are driving the market towards pre-packaged pretty boys and pretty girls that have little actual skill or creative ability. Multi-million pound karaoke competitions feeding the music charts with an ever expanding list of people who’s only desire is to be famous and nothing else.

If we move closer to the arts world we have Matthew Bourne and Adventures in Motion Pictures/New Adventures and his omnipresent productions of ‘Swan Lake’, ‘Edward Scissorhands’, ‘The Car Man’ (it’s really ‘Carmen’ geddit?) and so on. Yes, the shows are popular and any arguments about their respective qualities are subjective and a matter of personal taste. But, Adventures in Motion Pictures started out with Arts Council Funding!

Popularity is not necessarily a bad thing of course. There are lots of productions that are popular and are also well made by people with lots of skill and lots of talent but market forces often tip the balance in favour of the fatuous and everything else takes a back seat.

The subsidised culture sector is also more resistant to keeping touring productions running for decades simply to keep bringing in the money. Contemporary dance makers, for example, are making new work on a yearly basis (for their own companies) and there is little after market enterprise to generate financial support, like DVD sales, soundtrack sales or the sale of TV rights. Why? because DVD distributors and TV companies don’t want to invest money in things that require their audiences to pay too much attention.

Taxing Questions

Many tax payers don’t like it when their money is spent on something that doesn’t directly benefit them. If you don’t engage with publicly funded art at all then by default that person will probably resent their money being used to fund it. People with sons and daughters in the military care about military funding but they probably don’t care about farming subsidies because they don’t realise how farming subsidies help reduce food costs.

For too many people if there is no obvious benefit then spending money on it must be a waste of time. The real problem here is selfish, linear thinking. Grasping the concept that the world doesn’t just revolve around you and your family is a problem that is very hard to fix.

Also, the annual budget for the UK hovers around £587Billion per year. The amount spent on the arts makes up less than 1% of that amount. Re-directing money from the arts towards anything else would have little or no impact and the catastrophic damage done to the creative sector would be immeasurable.


Arts Council England’s recent bungling of the new funding announcements has done little to deflect growing criticism that the government quango should be axed and funding decisions moved directly into the hands of the Treasury. Setting aside the fact that this would be jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire, ACE needs to be fixed not phased out.

Making the funding body completely transparent would be a good place to start. No more cosy meetings behind closed doors where personal relationships and long held friendships are used to leverage funding. We all know it happens, lets not pretend any more that it doesn’t.

Transparency is only the start, but it’s the right place to start.

Defending Subsidy

Governments are often derided, especially by conservatives/republicans who want nothing more than to look out for themselves and to hell with everybody else. The problem of course is not government in and of itself but bad government, badly run by incompetent people with little connection to reality.

A self serving politician will do just that, serve him/herself and spoil the fun for the rest of us.

The truth of the matter is that governments and public subsidy can and do, when used properly, correct the problems created by a free market hopelessly skewed towards dumbed down commercialism. The free market demands Stomp and Dancing with the Stars? That’s fine. The subsidised sector fights back with Hofesh Shechter, Jasmin Vardimon and hundreds more to correct the balance.

Of the twelve video features we have running from British Dance Edition, just how many of those works would have been made if there was no public subsidy for the arts? I’ll wager not one would either exist or, if it did exist, would ever have the opportunity to be seen by anybody.

If a talented musician can obtain a grant to develop new work instead of stacking shelves in Sainsburys then that is to the benefit of us all. He or she may or may not be the next Puccini but we have to at least give them a chance. Should we leave that talented musician to the one in a million shot they can get past Simon Cowell and the other airbrushed puppets on the X-Factor? I think not!

Subsidy is littered with problems but the solution is not to remove the subsidy, the solution is to fix the problems. It’s a lot harder to accomplish but I think we’re smart enough to find a way!

[ Top Image by Thomas Weißenfels ]