IT’S been another tough year for the Arts and—at least in prospect—2023 doesn’t look any easier. Audiences and visitor numbers have been slow to recover after the pandemic and soaring costs and inflation have increased pressure on finances that have already been stretched to breaking point. Fundraising has been constrained by the same pressures, as have ticket sales. Small surprise, therefore, that, for some institutions, the cumulative effect has proved catastrophic. One such is the Nottingham Museum, where the managing trust filed for bankruptcy last month after a £30 million renovation project of the building completed in 2021.
Such events, however, must not eclipse all that has been achieved in the past year and what strikes Athena as a new-found confidence and sense of purpose in the cultural sector. In the enforced suspension of lockdown, there was widespread reappraisal of how Arts organisations can adapt and improve their activities. There has also been a realisation of what culture does for society and the degree to which it is popularly valued. Added to all this, the unhappy example of Ukraine has served as a reminder that culture is something that really matters to our identity and that, in some circumstances, it’s something that people are prepared to die for.
Nevertheless, it seems inevitable—given the pressures of the moment—that Government spending on the Arts will suffer an effective, if not a real, cut. Certainly, that is what happened at the hands of the present Chancellor when he served in his first ministerial role in 2010–12 during the last round of austerity. After all, the conventional thinking remains that the Arts are a luxury engaged in by a minority. Much more important, therefore, to be seen to boost funding for national necessities, such as the NHS and defence.
The reality is self-evidently more complex. To an exceptional degree, it’s in the Arts that people from all walks of life invest their free time and hard-earned money. Yes, they are a luxury, but only in the sense that they are an essential of life only one step beyond its immediate needs. Can you imagine an education or existence without the pleasure or insight they bring? Meanwhile, the sums of money actually being distributed to the Arts are so tiny that transferring them to any other sphere of Government funding renders them invisible. There is no real competition between the NHS and Arts funding.
One unexpected way that the Chancellor might break with long political tradition in the year ahead is to pledge more money for the Arts. It needn’t be much, but it might make a huge difference on the ground. Added to which, it would make for a good news story almost unassailable to political criticism. Who would decry more money for the Arts? Sadly, Athena is not holding her breath for that news.