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.

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.

In periods of governmental expansiveness, observers contend, such a system supplies steady increases for the arts. The present system -- an Arts Council operating at arm's length from the Arts Ministry, but nevertheless relying on taxpayers' money -- grew up after the devastations of World War II. At that time, says Mr. Rittner, ``the feeling [was] that we had to build the flagship'' by restoring London to its cultural prominence.''

Now, however, many observers share Simon Jenkins's feeling that ``the arts establishment . . . has slid into a state of dependence on government and a dislike of the private sector -- individual as well as corporate -- which is ingrained in much of British public life.''

In his highly regarded report on ``Paying for the Arts'' in The Economist last November, Mr. Jenkins, political editor of that magazine, went on to say that the arts groups are ``thus buying institutional security at the price of poverty.''

The price of their poverty became apparent to many in the arts community here with the publication a year ago of a plan by the Arts Council to shift its funding strategy. The new goal: to support regional groups at the expense of London-based ones. The report, called ``The Glory of the Garden,'' has been met with widespread skepticism and even hostility.

Predictably, the complaints have come from London-based groups, which see it as a political move to woo support from the non-London public -- rather than as a plan to foster excellence for the arts -- and who complain that the best talent gravitates from the regions to the cultural capital and must be supported there. Sir Peter Hall, director of London's National Theatre company, recently announced that the Cottesloe Theatre would be closed at the end of the current season because of financial difficulties.

The report also raises serious questions about the independence of the Arts Council from the government. ``I don't think they've got their relationship right,'' says Clifford Williams, a director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, who notes that there is ``a lot of feeling that the people at the top are not being very helpful at the moment.''

Mr. Harbottle of the Theatrical Management Association agrees. ``Somehow the buffer between politics and the arts has got to be re-created,'' he says.

But the Arts Council's Luke Rittner, during a lengthy interview in his office in Piccadilly, defends the plan as a means of spreading the impact of the arts more widely. He also pushes strongly for increased private sponsorship to replace public funding. Unlike the United States, he says, ``we [in Britain] have virtually no corporate funding for the arts.''

Before taking up his present position in 1983, he spent seven years as the first director of the Association for Business Sponsorship of the Arts. Business sponsorship in Britain, he says, has risen from 600,000 ($660,000) in 1976 to nearly 15 million ($16.5 million) today. Although he doubts it will ever match public funding, he sees business sponsorship as a still-untapped source of significant revenue.

But there are strong reservations about the public-to-private shift. ``I worry about the whole business of sponsorship,'' says the TMA's Harbottle, because ``we know that it goes to the prestigious institutions'' instead of the lesser-known groups. Even the prestigious organizations have their doubts: At the National Theatre, Mr. Goodwin worries that such sponsorship is ``extremely dicey -- you can't count on it'' when you try to put together the large, far-seeing budgets needed by major arts institutions.

Yet the idea appears to be catching on. ``Three or four years ago you would have looked down your nose at it,'' says Colin Chambers, the literary editor of the Royal Shakespeare Company. This season, his company is receiving about 10 percent of its budget in sponsorship funding.

On one thing, however, all sides agree: The need for the arts is as great as it has ever been. ``I think that when times are difficult,'' says Rittner, ``while there may not be that much money to spend, whether [people] have a need for a purely surface enjoyment or a more deeply spiritual experience, they need [the arts].''

``At this moment,'' says Sir John Tooley, referring to the nation's economic distress, ``we actually need the kind of spiritual refreshment that can come out of what we're trying to do here.''

Mr. Kidder, the Monitor's feature editor, was the paper's London correspondent in 1979 and 1980.

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