The arts in Britain. Excellence amid a money crisis
Britain's arts community faces a paradox. On the one hand, London remains (along with Paris and New York) one of the world's three great centers for the arts. Many observers here say that this year the arts are flourishing as they never have since World War II.Skip to next paragraph
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On the other hand, funding for the arts -- most of which comes from government sources -- is at a point of crisis.
The financial picture, observers inside and outside the arts community say, is dire. Even those who admit that the arts always seem to be on their last legs see the present situation as particularly grim.
``I've been through very many crises,'' says John Goodwin, spokesman for the National Theatre and a longtime arts administrator, ``and this is the worst I can remember.''
The good news, says Luke Rittner, director of the Arts Council of Great Britain, is that ``there's a most incredible selection of arts'' available to the public this season -- much of it very fine:
``The standard of work that's going on is very high,'' says Jane Hackworth-Young, director of the British Theatre Association, whose magazine (Drama) has just announced its prestigious theater awards for 1984. She sees a clear improvement this season over last.
Sir William Rees-Mogg, chairman of the Arts Council (a quasi-independent body that receives money from the Arts Ministry and distributes it to arts organizations), notes that ``I don't think there's ever been as much good-quality music being played in Britain as there is just now.''
Sir John Tooley, general administrator of the Royal Opera House, notes that ``interest is generally growing'' in opera and dance. The latest Arts Council figures support his view: the 9 million (approximately $9.9 million) in opera receipts for the 1983-84 season broke box office records.
Nevertheless, Sir John says, the financial picture facing the arts constitutes ``a crisis for this country.''
``I'm sure we'll see a decline over the next two years,'' says G. Laurence Harbottle, president of the Theatrical Management Association (TMA).
``Yes, they are struggling,'' admits Mr. Rittner, whose 1985 Arts Council budget has been increased barely enough to cover inflation.
The problem has several layers of complexity. On the surface are two major decisions taken by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's cost-conscious government: an increase of the Arts Council budget from 100 million to only 105 million ($110 million to $115.5 million), which is widely felt to be too small to matter; and a decision to eliminate, next year, a middle level of local government by abolishing the Greater London Council and other metropolitan county councils across the nation. The GLC, in particular, is a significant source of support for various arts groups in London.
Lord Gowrie, minister for the arts, has announced an additional 16 million ($17.6 million) grant for the Arts Council in lieu of GLC funding for 1986-87. But most observers agree that it would take more to make up for the loss.
This budget-tightening is rooted in broader issues, particularly Britain's current economic recession and its record-breaking levels of unemployment. The Treasury has also been drained by the 11-month miners strike, which has cost Britain an estimated 3.2 billion ($3.5 billion). Compounding these fiscal pressures is the general desire within the Conservative government to roll back socialism by shrinking government involvement and encouraging more private-sector involvement in all enterprises -- including the arts. There is also widespread suspicion that Mrs. Thatcher herself is not particularly interested in the arts.
Beneath these issues, however, is the obbligato of concern about the way Britain funds the arts in general. With the exception of the commercial theaters in London's West End and the vigorous arts programming of the BBC, arts organizations here rely heavily on support from central and local government -- and less heavily on the ``take'' at the box office. Recently published Arts Council figures show that while the average cost of an opera ticket sold during the 1983-84 season was 9.78 ($10.76), for example, the public subsidy amounted to just over 20 ($22) for each seat.