Arts must pay their way, says UK government

The British culture minister has called on arts organisations like theatres and museums to prove that they benefit the economy. But should culture really be valued in pounds and pence?

From music to theatre to film, Britain exports more cultural products than any other country in the world. The so-called ‘creative industries’ take up 10% of the British economy and employs more than 2.5 million people. In the UK, the arts are big business.

This week, Conservative politician Maria Miller gave her first major speech on the arts since becoming the country’s culture minister. She began, unsurprisingly, with warm praise for their role in British society: ‘Culture educates, entertains and it enriches,’ she said. ‘It makes the UK distinctive in a globalised world.’

So far, few in the assembled crowd of museum curators, theatre directors, artists, publishers and the like would have disagreed. But what she said next was far more controversial: ‘When times are tough and money is tight, our focus must be on culture’s economic impact.’ She talked of culture as a ‘commodity’ to be judged on its financial returns, and called on arts leaders to help her show that their work could pay its way.

For some, this task will be simple enough. Subsidised productions like War Horse, and One Man Two Guvnors have all been enormous commercial hits which have transferred their success in London over the seas to American theatres.

Film, too has benefitted from state funding. The producer of the latest James Bond film, Skyfall, recently pointed out that its director and nearly all of its cast had made their names at subsidised theatres.

The British Museum draws in 5.6 million visitors per year, and the Tate Modern 5.3 million, very many of whom come from around the world to spend their time and money consuming Britain’s culture. Their collections, like those of almost every museum in the country, are curated and maintained using government money.

For every success story, however, there are hundreds of small arts organisations that would struggle to make ends meet without help from the Arts Council. And with a fresh round of arts funding cuts approaching, the future of these projects looks very fragile indeed.

Culture cash

So let them die, say those with hard noses: if a play or a gallery can’t attract enough people to pay for itself, then why should the taxpayer foot the bill? Government funding for the arts should be an investment, not a charitable donation towards obscure and irrelevant cultural projects. Asking artists to justify their income will force them to produce work of genuine value.

Philistines !’ respond many artists: culture is not just a commodity to be milked for cash. Its value should be measured by its boldness, its beauty and how it makes us think and feel about our place in the world. If artists are constrained by the need to make their work commercially viable, its quality will suffer – and so, ultimately, will the profits it brings.

You Decide

  1. Should governments fund art?
  2. Is popular opinion a good way to judge the quality of a work of art like a painting, film or play?


  1. Imagine your class is a panel on a funding body for the arts. You have a choice between funding a production by a commercially successful company or a play by an unknown but promising young writer. Hold a debate and vote on which to choose.
  2. Pick two works of art you admire and write a paragraph comparing how the artists received the money to make them.

Some People Say...

“Without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable.’ George Bernard Shaw”

What do you think?

Q & A

What’s the point in museums and galleries anyway?
Good question. Many museums were set up in the 19th Century in an effort by governments to encourage people to use their leisure time in constructive and educative ways. Some are built to show off a particular set of artworks or artifacts; others are gathered by great collectors and then given to the public after their death.
They’re still boring.
Some might be. But if you go with an open mind and try to properly engage with the things you’re looking at, museums can be truly interesting and rewarding. For most of history, the items on view in great collections would have been locked away from public view; we are enormously lucky to have access to them.

Word Watch

Creative industries
Music, film, television, architecture, advertising, fashion, design, film, games and anything else that involves making cultural products.
War Horse
This play, based on a book by Michael Morpurgo, made spectacular and groundbreaking use of puppetry to bring a horse to life on the stage. It cost £50,000 to create, £500,000 to stage and has so far made the National Theatre £11 million.
One Man Two Guvnors
A comedy based on an 18th Century Italian farce which became an unexpectedly enormous hit with both critics and the public.
Arts Council
This public body is responsible for distributing money to organisations involved in visual, literary and performing arts. It receives finances from both the government and the National Lottery.
Someone who doesn’t appreciate the value of art and high culture. The word comes from an alternative name for the Palestinian people who inhabited the area around Israel in Biblical times. For Medieval Christians, a ‘philistine’ was one who did not accept the word of God; it then became generalised as a label for anybody perceived as uncultured.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.