(This piece appeared on Dilettante Music on 5 May 2010)

With the UK in the grip of election fever, arts-makers and -lovers alike are anxiously combing the news for clues about the fate of arts funding after 6 May. Thanks largely to semi-legal shenanigans in the finance sector, which has long been the UK economy’s iron lung, the belt-tightening rhetoric grows ever-louder leaving many of us in the arts sector holding our breath till this Friday when the election results emerge.

Recession or no recession, cynically or with genuine enthusiasm, politicians often get matey with the arts. For instance, Stateside a star-studded quartet performed a new work by John Williams at Barack Obama’s inauguration. Happily, the Obama administration has gone on to put its money where its mouth is, actually increasing funding for the NEA in 2010.

Meantime, north of the border, the Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper axed every penny of funding for cultural diplomacy in his first few days in office, long before the recession hit. That didn’t stop the PM from joining Yo-Yo Ma on stage at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre last October for an unironic rendition of ‘I’ll get by with a little help from my friends.’ As the saying goes, with friends like that…

And sometimes politicians use cuts to arts funding as a macho display of their own fiscal rectitude. For instance, our friends at the Manchester Camerata recently saw an end to £7300 of local council funding for their highly-successful, decades-long outreach programme in Crewe. ‘Recessionary cuts?’ you ask. Doesn’t look that way since the council went on to blow £16,000 on a booth for a political party conference.

Of course, with the election less than 24 hours away, the fate of broader UK arts funding will be revealed in short order. So far we know that the Tories are talking up a shift towards a US-style system of endowments, with shadow culture secretary Jeremy Hunt insisting that ‘philanthropy should never replace grant-in-aid.’ But as both The Guardian’s Charlotte Higgins and Michael Kimmelman writing in the New York Times have said, with no history of private giving in the UK as compared with the US, philanthropy won’t fill short-term holes in arts budgets. Higgins also points out that arts groups putting on more experimental work tend to lose out to savvy development teams in the fight for philanthropists’ funds.

As for Labour, the culture minister Margaret Hodge cites the model in the US, where the recession has decimated many organisations’ endowments, to warn about what can happen when the arts are simply another player in the free market. Still, Hodge told Classical Music magazine that the arts sector needs to ‘shout more loudly’ to make the case for support. Perhaps, although all the shouting in the world can’t replace a government’s belief in the arts’ value. Culture Secretary Ben Bradshaw’s widely-noted invisibility for months now has left a vacuum where progressive arts policy used to be.

Meantime, the newly-invigorated Liberal Democrats are touting ‘a new economic model…in which the creative industries….make the largest single contribution to the nation’s GDP.’ We read this in sector-focused Classical Music as well, which leaves us wondering why the party hasn’t been shouting loudly about this significant economic realignment? Are they afraid no one’s listening?

The fact is that nothing beats the game of ‘arts v. hospitals’ for getting punters who are already disposed to think ‘culture’ is for soya latte-sipping elites to nod their heads in agreement that the arts are a luxury we just can’t afford.

False dilemma, you ask? Indeed it is. According to a British Council report from 2007, the creative industries are worth about £56-billion a year and employ close to two-million people. Just yesterday, The Stage reported that Birmingham’s cultural sector put more than £270-million in the city’s coffers. What’s more, since creativity and innovation can’t be outsourced, governments that support creative output are supporting growth that’s sustainable. It’s a win-win, as they say.

So let’s hope governments stop playing to the tabloids, pretending the arts are a luxury we can’t afford to keep. In reality, they constitute a sector we can’t afford to lose.

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