Sunday, 23 June 2013

Well, what ARE we fighting for?

If the persistent talk of arts cuts has done anything, it has prompted a running discussion on what the arts and culture actually mean to this country.  It is hardly surprising that among professional politicians, the debate is generally split along political lines but even there, some have crossed the floor to argue that it is not as simple as slashing the budget for the arts and expecting the wider public to quietly acquiesce. The problem is that whenever we discuss budget cuts, we are offered one dimensional "either, or" scenarios; "I would rather money was spent on saving lives" or, from the arts side, "we spend billions on Trident". And so the public are easily manipulated. 

Governments - of any colour - are given to extreme consciousness when it comes to our physical and social health, telling us how to look after ourselves, demanding we stop doing things like smoking, trying to prevent young women from getting pregnant, ordering us to stop using our phones when driving or to get us to reduce our alcohol intake. There is no end of ways by which politicians will apparently concern themselves deeply with our well-being and if they have to, they will fine us into complying. What they do not seem to have a great deal of time for is our emotional, intellectual and cultural health, despite that almost the entire point of our existence as working, harassed and according to them, wantonly unhealthy, members of society is to enjoy life. I don't know about you but culture, in its many forms, is sort of what life is all about isn't it? Reading, watching TV and cinema, listening to music? What is it we do when not at the office? Where do we get our emotional experiences on a day to day basis?

For a country that is so drenched in cultural history, Britain can be a quite monstrously, grotesquely uncultured place, especially when the nastier elements of our 
politically active society demonstrate their viciously hateful antipathy towards the arts (unless it is entirely paid for at the door by the public who experience it). To them, far better to spend money on the really "necessary" things; of course, if not a single penny was ever spent by the public purse on the arts, the same people would no doubt be attacking other groups who receive money from the state for whatever purpose, but I digress. 

I work in an industry that receives a large portion of the ACE budget. I wouldn't necessarily agree that is fair but the problem with this particular argument is that opera is so ridiculously stereotyped and caricatured in the UK that the debate is almost impossible to have without some idiot saying "it is for the rich, let them pay for it!".  I have written before that it is the rich who do often pay for it; ask all those development managers working for opera and theatre companies around the UK who they squeeze until the pips squeak?

But culture is, I am pleased to report, something that large numbers of the British do value. Our problem is that a great swathe of our nation is not terribly well exposed to arts and culture and so, as a consequence of historically half-arsed educationalist thinking, the arts suffer from being perceived as something enjoyed only by a certain class of Londoner for whom the anti-culturalists reserve especially vituperative hostility and so politicians are kidded into thinking they are only upsetting a minority. From the other side, those championing the socially and economically challenged within society look at the same issue with a different slant and often they stand accused - certainly by me - of robbing young people of the opportunity to explore. They tell them "that is not for you". I am as allergic to them as I am the flathead pseudo-economists.

In Kensington and Chelsea, the council carry out regular surveys of a group of people known as the Residents Panel. There are several hundred of these people, carefully selected to reflect the social and economic profile of the borough and the participants are asked to comment on various aspects of council services, to offer opinions on major topics and issues. They recently took part in a survey on culture and their answers were hugely encouraging. 

Asked to agree or otherwise with the statement "Arts and culture in London are an important part of my life", 86% said they Strongly Agreed or Agreed. Only 1% said they disagreed. They continued in that vein for several similar related statements. And then the final section stated, "I believe that arts and culture should be encouraged and supported by the council" - 54% Strongly Agreed, 35% Agreed and only 3% Strongly Disagreed or Disagreed. That is 89% of people who believe their council should support culture. What the survey doesn't offer, naturally, is a caveat that suggests that if the council DOES support the arts, they won't do something else "more important", which is precisely where the flatheads will get exquisitely cross. 

As it happens, the council has made it quite clear that arts and culture in Kensington and Chelsea are not the icing on the cake, but a big part of the cake itself. It was of course delightful to note that 58% of people in the borough visit Opera Holland Park but that is blowing our own trumpet a bit too hard. RBKC supports arts right across the spectrum; it ended up with a successful opera company yet they also support Nour Festival, a fantastic celebration of middle eastern culture, InTransit, Leighton House and Linley Sambourne House and of course Carnival. That is a first class portfolio of municipal arts. Councils up and down the country try to do similar but many also find culture to be the first and easiest thing to relinquish, thus leaving their communities impoverished in more ways than one.

I recently gave two speeches to corporate guests at OHP. Both events were for companies who put in money to support the festival, to try to help progress the work and to contribute to the costs and pay for the thousands of free and cheap tickets we distribute every season. Both speeches turned into something of an eulogy to the vitality and importance of the arts and to the absolutely critical need for them to continue to support culture in the UK through sponsorships and donations. In both rooms, my audience were wealthy, successful people, all of whom could afford to pay for whatever they fancied doing or seeing in a theatre and indeed do so. But each and every one of them nodded vigorously in agreement, applauded the principal of publicly supported arts and the access to it we should afford the whole of society. My guests had put their money where their mouth is because they know, from their own experience, that life is just so much better when infused with wondrous music, bewitching words or gorgeous pictures. 

If RBKC do decide, one day, to end their support of Opera Holland Park, we shall all move on and do something else because, after all we are just officers providing a service the council currently wishes to pay for. It is also worth mentioning that OHP generates an estimated £2 million per season in additional visitor spend and provides hundreds of jobs. But, you see, were WE to be offered a choice between saving the life of an old person or opera, it would be hard to argue it wouldn't it?  But our community - London - will be worse off for us having been given that Hobson's Choice. And it begs the question; what kind of a world do we want all of these healthy, non drinking, non-smoking, very old people to be living in? 

As Churchill allegedly said to his finance minister who was urging him to cut funding for the arts to pay for munitions during WWll, "Well, then what are we fighting for?" I don't even care if the quote is authentic because it's a bloody great sentiment regardless.