TOPIC GUIDE: Arts Funding

"State funding of the arts is essential to a civilised society"

PUBLISHED: 01 May 2013

AUTHOR: Tom Slater & Dolan Cummings

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Since the Second World War, the government has financially supported the arts in Britain, primarily through the Arts Council. Like other aspects of the welfare state such as the National Health Service and council housing, public funding for the arts was seen as a public good, something that benefitted society as a whole. There have always been some who saw arts funding as a misuse of taxpayers’ money, which they thought would be better spent on things like schools and hospitals – or indeed not taken from people as tax in the first place. Nonetheless, there has long been a political consensus that some level of state funding for the arts is a good thing. To the extent that there has been controversy, it has concerned whether it is right to fund ‘elite’ artforms like opera and ballet, which are disproportionately enjoyed by more privileged sections of society, or indeed whether the scope of arts funding is too broad, supporting work of dubious artistic merit. In May 2010, then Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt announced significant spending cuts to the Arts Council and various other institutions responsible for distributing public money to the creative industries [Ref: Evening Standard]. This led to uproar within the arts, and the ensuing debate has seen a variety of arguments for and against state funding. Broadly, these arguments are social, economic and artistic.

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This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

A public good?
The Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (which later become the Arts Council) was established in 1940. Even, or perhaps especially,  in the context of the Second World War, it was felt that funding the arts was justified because of the role they might play in boosting national morale. Moreover, there was a feeling that while ‘high art’ had previously been the preserve of the elite, it should be made available to the nation as a whole. The forerunner to the Arts Council was set up in a similar spirit to that of the BBC, famously described by its founder Lord Reith as having a mission to ‘inform, educate and entertain’ and to raise up the cultural level of the common man. For some, the arts continue to be a force for civilisation and a means of self-improvement. Others see this view as old-fashioned, patrician and elitist, and certainly no justification for public funding. A different case for art as a public good was made in the Department for Culture Media and Sport paper, Museums, Galleries and Archives for All, published in 2000. It defined cultural spaces as ‘centres for social change’, and stressed art’s role in combating ‘social exclusion’ and fostering ‘community involvement’ [Ref: National Archives]. This helped form the criteria under which funding applications would be appraised for much of the next decade – potential for social improvement and a diverse audience being among the most essential [Ref: Arts For Health]. Nevertheless, critics see this approach as overly instrumental, reducing art to a means to an end and neglecting its true value [Ref: spiked].

Is art good for the economy?
The proposed 100 per cent cut to Newcastle’s arts budget in January of 2013 brought out a different side to the debate – that of the creative industry’s economic value [Ref: BBC News]. Many have argued that, especially in cities where other industries have dwindled, Britain’s thriving arts sector has boosted the economy. Citing the success of the Lowry Centre in Salford [Ref: The Lowry] among others, proponents have emphasised the opportunity new arts ventures provide for regeneration. Others emphasise the contribution of the creative industries to the UK economy more generallly in terms of employment, ‘cultural tourism’ and VAT. In her recent keynote speech on the issue, Maria Miller,  the current Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, argued that the arts must make the case for public funding by focusing on the economic – not artistic – value of culture [Ref: BBC News]. Some even present arts funding as investment rather than subsidy [Ref: Guardian]. Nevertheless, others suggest the economic impact of the arts is skewed by the numerous tangential professions counting as arts – such as graphic design, gaming and arts journalism – that come under the ‘creative industries’ umbrella. Critics also point to costly failed ventures, such as the National Centre For Popular Music in Sheffield [Ref: National Archives], as proof that economic gains are far from guaranteed. Others insist that as a matter of principle, art cannot be appraised on purely economic terms, regarding this trend as a philistine distraction from valuing art for its own sake. Some see the recent closure of the much-loved Byre Theatre in St Andrews as an illustration of what happens when such institutions focus on economic success by investing in social spaces and cafe refurbishments etc. One commentator argued, ‘The Byre started to fail when the building became more important than what went on inside it’ [Ref: Scottish Review].

Does state funding make for better art?
Some argue state funding of the arts is necessary to support more innovative and challenging art that is less commercially viable. Left to the market, they suggest, only safe and pedestrian mainstream fare can succeed, which makes cuts to state arts funding philistine [Ref: Evening Standard]. But when announcing the cuts, Jeremy Hunt pointed out that other sources of funding are available, such as the American model of cultural philanthropy by wealthy benefactors [Ref: BBC News].  Critics of the government counter that this model, like corporate sponsorship, leaves artists beholden to their powerful patrons. The sense of anxiety surrounding the influence of big business was reflected in the protests outside the Tate galleries in 2010, when it was revealed they were receiving much of their funding from multinational oil company BP [Ref: Daily Mail]. From this point of view, state funding is necessary to support more left-field or risky art and ensure artistic autonomy from corporate influence. Nevertheless, others counter that grant applications for Arts Council funding actually involves highly prescriptive criteria and implicit political influence [Ref: Huffington Post]. Moreover, state funded art can also be safe and predictable: one writer reflects that the late UK Film Council had a reputation for ‘backing mainstream work that would surely find funding elsewhere’ [Ref: Evening Standard]. For some, it would be best for the public to ‘vote with their wallet’ about which artists are worthwhile [Ref: Economist]. Others insist that state funding allows arts institutions to raise the public’s horizons by exposing them to art they would not always choose as consumers.


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.

Economist Debate: Arts funding

Economist 22 August 2012

Arts debate: ‘Brutal and vulgar’

Lloyd Evans Spectator 9 October 2010

Is austerity good for the arts?

Josie Rourke and Sean O’Hanagan Guardian 30 May 2010


We can’t afford not to support the arts

Peter Bazalgette Telegraph 19 September 2013

Arts Council report: our children will end up barbarians

Rupert Christiansen Telegraph 7 May 2013

Arts funding – what it does and why it matters

Andrew Mellor New Statesman 22 November 2012

A government of philistines

Sholto Byrnes New Statesman 24 July 2012

A blitzkrieg on the arts

Nicholas Serota Guardian 4 October 2010


Time to end UK art’s dependency culture

Denis Joe spiked 29 April 2013

Creative Scotland was a project doomed to failure

Ian Bell Herald Scotland 5 December 2012

The arts can survive, and thrive, without public money

Simon Heffer Telegraph 7 May 2011

Cutting edge: radical arts funding

David Lister Independent 24 August 2010


Arts are economic gold for Britain

Sir Nicholas Hytner Telegraph 24 April 2013

Arts Funding, Austerity and The Big Society: Remaking the case for the arts

John Knell and Matthew Taylor Arts Council England 1 February 2011

In an era of austerity, reasons to fund the arts

Robert Hewison Art Newspaper 6 July 2010

The Arts Council: Managed to Death

Marc Sidwell, New Culture Forum 2009


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

The arts and instrumentalism

Magnus Linklater The Times 29 June 2013

Can Liberate Tate free the arts from BP?

Susanna Rustin Guardian 24 April 2013

Peter Bazalgette

BBC Radio 3 'Music Matters' 9 March 2013

Byre drama has consequences for all

Tiffany Jenkins Scotsman 5 February 2013

The avoidable death of a much-loved Scottish institution

Kenneth Roy Scottish Review 29 January 2013

Hunt’s glass slipper is filling with toxic toes

Mark Donne Huffington Post 13 July 2011

Giving to the arts: we need to follow America

Jeremy Hunt Huffington Post 5 July 2011

Art For Everyone: A strategic framework for the arts

Arts Council England November 2010

Where now for the British film industry?

Xan Brooks Guardian 7 October 2010

Big Society: Arts, Health and Well-Being

Clive Parkinson Arts for Health


Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.


Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.

Arts cuts so deep even the Tate may charge

Independent 17 February 2013

Theatre director: only philistines make arts cuts

Evening Standard 4 February 2013

Arts Council to face £11.6m of further cuts

Stage News 11 December 2012


Peter Bazalgette

BBC Radio 3 'Music Matters' 9 March 2013

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