Written by Lyn Gardner
Plans by the rightwing thinktank to replace arts funding with a voucher system could kill innovative theatre stone dead
Imagine a world in which there was no government subsidy for theatre-makers. It would be a place where art responded entirely to the demands of the market. Such a theatre would probably look much like the West End. Hang on a minute: it wouldn't, because from Les Miserables to The Caretaker, from Jerusalem to Enron, several West End shows emerged out of subsidised theatre. So, in fact, what this theatre landscape would look like is endless productions of Oliver! or Dreamboats and Petticoats. Except it couldn't be that either, because although those shows might be entirely commercial propositions, those who created them – the writers, directors, designers and actors – learned their trade in subsidised theatre and then transferred their skills to the commercial marketplace.
All three political parties are currently courting the arts while being careful to make no promises about what will happen to funding after the election. The Tories' Jeremy Hunt is working hard to wipe the memory of the 1980s when the then Conservative government made clear its dislike and distrust of the arts, and theatre in particular. Remember Norman Tebbit and Theatre Centre? Hunt recently laid out a vision for the arts that included increased donations from philanthropists and the building of endowments, while making it quite clear that "philanthropic giving should not be a replacement for state support".
But will such thinking continue to hold sway after the election if the Tories win and implement savage cuts in public spending? It shouldn't, according to the rightwing thinktank the Adam Smith Institute, which, in a report published on Monday entitled Arts Funding: a New Approach argued against all government subsidy of the arts and suggested that if it does continue, the Arts Council should be abolished to save its (currently falling) administration costs. Author David Rawcliffe proposes a new system of funding in which artists would no longer be subsidised, and subsidy should be distributed directly to consumers: everyone in the country would receive a yearly non-transferable voucher (at current funding levels, worth £11) that they could then spend on the event of their choice. Arts producers would exchange the voucher for cash. He argues that "the arts council system of government support for the arts is an outdated, centrally-controlled, bureaucratic nightmare that is expensive, unfair and ineffective. The objectives of arts subsidy would be fulfilled far more efficiently by a post-bureaucratic solution that empowered citizens, and compelled the arts establishment to meet their needs. A voucher system is exactly that."
Oh no it's not. There are good arguments for giving communities a say in how subsidy is distributed, and which artists and projects should receive it (the Arts Council has shown an interest in South American models), but Rawcliffe's suggestion that "the definition of good art would be that which people wanted to see, or that which private patrons wanted to fund" turns art into a kind of popularity contest. Such an approach to funding would kill our thriving and innovative theatre culture stone dead – the same theatre culture that gives such a good return on the investment it attracts.
In a world where government subsidy is abolished, our cities and towns would be full of crumbling, empty theatre buildings. People would lose their jobs and the local economy would suffer. The brilliant Drum in Plymouth and the Mercury in Colchester would be unable to make theatre for and about their local communities. Rural touring circuits would break down and companies such as Complicite and Kneehigh would disappear over night. Maybe the Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre would survive in some form if they could attract enough philanthropic support, although of course their education work in schools would have to go. And ticket prices would probably have to rise substantially – a seat for the new Simon Stephens play might cost £100. Only there would be no new Stephens play, if the donors didn't like the sound of it.
Arts Funding: a New Approach may, of course, never be adopted as Conservative party policy, but its very existence at this delicate pre-election time is a sharp reminder of Tory antipathy towards funding for the arts and their deep suspicion of artists.
Published on guardian.co.uk here.