Overnight, Maria Miller the Culture Secretary has apparently announced that future arts funding will be based on financial returns rather than artistic merit.
As somebody with a foot in both camps, regularly switching between Human Capital Partner at accountants BDO and theatre critic on a regular basis, your London Editor is perhaps better placed than many to comment on this thorny issue. He is also more available than shy Ms Miller, who had a diary clash and was unable to appear on this morning's Todayprogramme at any point between 6 and 9 this morning.
As a cultural critic or merely arts enthusiast, there are times when one is forced to endure the most awful rot that has clearly been funded by public money, whether on stage, canvas, silver screen or other medium. This can lead to moments when the Miller argument that funding for experimental arts is not justified while the economy is enjoying its fifth year of free-fall seems compelling.
It might also be suggested that if the public isn't willing to shell out the necessary sums to bring artistic presentations into profit then they probably aren't worth doing in the first place. Once again, it is possible to see at least some merit in this argument.
Perhaps the biggest problem is judging the period of return. On Today, BBC’s Arts Editor Will Gompertz cited a number of different artistic endeavours that turned out to be unexpected successes.
During his lifetime, Vincent van Gogh was probably generally regarded as a bit of a loser—that nutty painter chap with an ear missing who liked creating versions of his boots and sunflowers far too often for comfort or sanity. Nowadays, had the Dutch government purchased the whole of his oeuvre, they would be sitting on a goldmine and if the Cypriots had shown that kind of foresight, they might still have an economy.
Who is to judge which current British theatre or visual artists might be about to follow suit and is there something of a problem in today's instant gratification society, if one has to wait a century or two for the payback? Our politicians clearly think so. In addition, they do not seem to appreciate the aesthetic pleasure that one can derive from a play such as Othello, seen with a big cast an expensive set at the National last night and getting universal critical plaudits, whatever it achieves financially.
The problem with the arts is the serendipity. Amidst innumerable commercial failures, The Royal Shakespeare Company originated Les Misérables and Matilda the Musical, two sure-fire money-makers today but not when they were originally mooted.
It is amusing to consider how conversations with the government funding bodies must have gone. "I've got this great idea. I want to produce a big budget musical based on a forgotten 1,500 page French novel from 100 years ago". I think we can all guess Ms Miller's answer to that one.
Similarly, the National Theatre has turned War Horse and One Man, Two Guvnors into global brands that are not only drawing tourists to London but also presumably bringing in massive amounts of import cash, as well as promoting Britain as a cultural centre. For the avoidance of doubt, none of these enterprises could have succeeded without public funding and the alternative would be staged versions of the mindless pap turned out on TV every night because that would make money.
On a much smaller scale, the British Council exports authors, theatrical productions, art exhibitions and much, much more with no guaranteed payback but an underlying theory that this must be good for the profile and indirectly the finances of the UK. It is that “indirectly” which is the key. A profit and loss account ignores the imponderables of tourist income because someone saw a BC show and just had to visit its originating country.
This is hardly the first time that a government has suggested cutbacks to the arts. Nationally, most companies and artists seem capable of surviving the knocks after long experience but wouldn't it be good if the Coalition backed down this time around and started promoting the arts as one of the last things that Britain does better than anyone else in the world? After all, compared to an aircraft carrier or high-speed train project, the total cost of the arts is a drop in the ocean.
You have to hope.
A slightly different version of this article is also posted in The Philip Fisher Column on AccountingWEB.
The full text of Maria Miller's Speech on 24 April at the British Museum can be found on the Inside Government web site.