CRITICS CHARGE THAT government subsidies for the arts in this country are laughable beside Great Britain's--and laughably administered. And, come to think of it, if we're laughing instead of crying, it may be because of the lack of a fertile, serious culture has probably blunted us to its absence. And to a lot of other things. Most Americans have never heard of the National Endowment for the Arts, let alone its leaders; British newspaper readers and telly-watchers, though, know a lot about The Arts Council of Great Britain. Its secretary-general, Sir Roy Shaw, is one of the most powerful, most passionately scrutinized arts administrators in the world. Sir Roy, who will speak on "Politics and Policies in the Arts" tonight at the Kennedy School, wields a budget of 80 million pounds (roughly $145 million)--about 25 per cent more than the NEA's budget in a country with less than a sixth of our population.
Shaw won't be gloating throughout his speech, though. With the arrival of the Reagan and Thatcher administrations, cuts in both arts budgets loom large, along with, in Britain, calls from conservative politicians to move arts patronage back into the private sector. (In this country, Office of Management and Budget Director David Stockman has daintily halved the NEA's budget.) As British culture becomes more and more commercialized and government resources dwindle, British artists and administrators will closely examine the arts scene in America, to see what happens to a culture overwhelmingly dependent on the private sector--corporate grants, individual contributions and ticket sales--for its support. Presumably they will step up government funding--in horror. Likewise, Americans, in preparation for future upheavals and the subsequent new society we may have to build, must learn from the British, from Matthew Arnold, William Morris, John Ruskin, John Maynard Keynes, and the other philosophers and men of letters who have helped to shape a policy that has made Britain, for all its other problems, a paradise for theatre, art and music lovers.
Government subsidy of the arts began in Britain in 1945, when the post-war administration sought to boost the morale of a battle-scarred population during the difficult and painful work of reconstruction. "We have developed the public service in arts much more than you have," says Sir Roy, who has spent about 25 years of his life teaching adults and lecturing on adult education. The assumption is that art can tangibly improve the quality of a person's life--stimulating and sharpening his imagination, so, in the words of British playwright Arnold Wesker, he can make "imaginative leaps of understanding and perception" without which he would be "insensitive, purposeless, charmless and finally, destructive."
Sir Roy has little patience with the conservative assertion that the arts budget takes money from the masses to fund an elitist, middle-class addiction. "All taxation takes money from a majority of people and distributes it to a minority," he says. "It's a thunderingly obvious point...The arts do reach only a minority of the population, particularly the serious arts which we fund, but I believe you can extend the reach beyond the middle-class to more ordinary people, blue collar workers, by education. What distinguishes the bourgeoisie is not a special gift from God but the fact that they've had an education and the opportunity to enjoy the arts--they were brought up with them. Working people aren't, but one must make sure that they have educational facilities in later life. Many people have their eyes and ears and minds opened to new pleasures by the arts."
One of the Arts Council's greatest achievements, he says, was the creation of an educational roadshow to bring opera and theatre--as well as post-performance discussions and workshops for students and townspeople--to provincial towns. "We've had dance companies go into the toughest parts of Liverpool--where the riots were--and dance with the kids in the schools and convince them that dance isn't a sissy occupation but one that requires remarkable physical skill and agility. And they actually got very tough boys interested in doing it, and in wanting to come to see it.
"Some people say, "These people will never acquire a taste for the serious arts--which is nonsense. Given the opportunity, a large percentage of them will. After all, the arts audience is mainly middle-class, but the middle class as a whole is not oriented to the arts: it has its own alternative amusements--horse-racing, gambling, playing bridge. A lot of bourgeoise characters have no more interest in the arts than a lot of working people. They've had the opportunity and they haven't necessarily followed it up. People don't always follow up opportunities, but they have to be given them, in justice."
The opportunities are certainly there. A ticket to a production at the subsidized National Theatre or Royal Shakespeare Company can cost less than four dollars, with further reductions for students and the unemployed. Fringe companies charge even less. (The luxury in Britain is cinema, not theatre, which costs between five and seven dollars a seat.) Compare Nicholas Nickleby's $100 price tag over here (under commercial management) to the $8 a cheap seat cost across the Atlantic. The difference is not just the result of travel expenses or actors' accomodations; it's the government subsidy that even companies like the RSC and the National--which have played to an average 90 per cent capacity in the last several years--require if they are to operate on a major scale.
SOME CHARGE THAT government subsidies encourage artists to forget the public--to become self-indulgent. But Sir Roy, who also faces calls for more participation in major funding decisions by the artists themselves, insists. "The Arts Council exists not for the artists but for the public, and to serve artists insofar as they serve the public...We have precise box office returns on every night of every show we support. We know whether it plays to full or quarter capacity and we take that into account. Not as the criterion but a criterion. You may have an experimental production which gets a lousy audience, and it would be unfair to condemn the theatre for that, but if they have a lousy audience throughout the year then one begins to think well, that they're not serving the public."
Since assuming his position in 1975, Sir Roy says he has sought to make the workings of the Council less mysterious to the artists and the public--which, ironically, has opened it up to increased charges of arbitrariness. "The press writes as though I glance at a list of companies and say. 'Oh, they get a grant, let's cut their grant,' and so on. Which is ludicrous...the funding procedure is complicated and laborious as it should be," he says, Each of the arts--theatre, music, dance, painting, photography and literature among them--has its own panel and group of permanent assessors. The assessors meet regularly with their "clients" and at the end of a season review a company's or individual's work. Then each panel presents a report and recommendations to the full Council--25 administrators writers, academics, and artists headed by Sir Roy and a chairman--who vote to maintain increase, decrease or eliminate a grant.
Artists have many opportunities to air their grievances to the assessors and the council, but Sir Roy maintains that to give them a formal vote in policy-shaping would be impossible: "They are very interested parties, "he says, "and cannot be expected to be objective and detached about their own needs, performance and rights."
The Council doesn't ask political questions, he says, only artistic ones. Included in its funding are several socialist-revolutionary agitprop touring companies, for example. "Many right-wing politicians attack us for supporting these groups, but we fund them because their work is artistically satisfying. If there were a right-wing theatre group doing first-class work we'd fund it too."
A major disadvantage of corporate subsidy, Sir Roy continues, is that companies sponsor artistic activities as a way of conducting advertising and public relations campaigns. "They're not going to take a chance on a left-wing or experimental work. They don't have the same altruistic concern for the arts that public subsidy does. We could subsidize a play which attacks nuclear energy, whereas the British nuclear power companies wouldn't." In the United States, as any public television watcher knows, Mobil and Exxon are "generous" supporters of the arts.
"Business subsidy can be fickle as well," he says, "It can be given and it can be taken away, if, for example, the head of a firm changes and he doesn't like the director. And there would be no one to raise an outcry since it's all done very privately. Whereas if I decided that I didn't like Sir Peter Hall, it would have no effect on the grant of the National Theatre. We don't work that way. Under that system administrators spend far too much time wining and dining businessmen and entertaining them at the theatre."
In Britain of course, corporations don't have very much money these days, and give only about one pound to the arts for every 20 provided by the government. In America, too, the major source of funding is not big business but wealthy individuals. "In my country we don't have so many rich people." Sir Roy points out.
He avoids criticizing the government publicly--after all, he says, the money comes from the people, and the people elected the Thatcher government with its particular policies. But he thinks the present government underrates the contribution of the arts to the nation's employment and economic well-being. As Punch columnist Melvin Bragg states in a recent column, a grant from the Council doesn't carry a company like the RSC (providing only three million pounds in a ten to 12 million pound operation), but it helps it o be more solvent and to reach more people with more projects: "In short, here is a classic case of state support being the springboard for private enterprise, which returns its goods directly into the public domain and in the process trains and employs a variety of highly skilled people whose work can and does fertilise other allied enterprises all about the place."
But controversies rage this year in light of cuts. The Council decided it would make more sense to cut some grants altogether and increase others significantly than to take a little bit from everybody; artists are still screaming, playwrights are boycotting conferences, hysterical letters from theatre companies and orchestras take their place on editorial pages beside tireless letters of explanation from Sir Roy Shaw and equally polarized columns by arts critics and culture-watchers. But the London theatre has rarely been healtheir. This year's Edinburgh Festival--a staggering assortment of fringe theatre companies, musicians and artists--was, even at its most materially impoverished, an embarrassment of riches. An embarrassment, that is, to an American weaned on television, advertising, and Broadway musicals.
"You do some things marvelously over here." Sir Roy quickly points out. "You've really got a polish on popular culture that we have not. When I was watching the Thanksgiving parade on television. I decided we couldn't do that kind of thing in Britain, we don't have the flair. We have a few drum majorettes, but they look very very amateurish and unsophisticated compared with yours....."
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