An edited version of this piece appeared on the Guardian Culture Blog on 11 May 2015.
With another five years of Tory government now guaranteed, it’s clear that more cuts to arts budgets are inevitable. As austerity tightens its strangle hold on the country and people see the value of their wages shrinking in real terms almost across the board, most arts organisations are facing a future of reduced revenue from public subsidy coupled with more conservative audience spending habits and reduced philanthropy and individual giving. There’s hope that over time private giving will rally and that arts organisations will develop new entrepreneurial income streams, but that will take more time, money and calculated risk than the ecology can support right now.
We’ve campaigned and protested, made the case for state funding of the arts in both quantative and qualitative terms, but the cuts roll on. Almost every organisation is downsizing its activities, streamlining, re-evaluating business models and searching down the back of the sofa for loose change. Right now, even the most robustly funded organisations are propped up by the hours of unpaid work their staff put in to serve and support the art they love. Politicians are fond of calling out employers who exploit unpaid workers, but it’s time for them to realise that the biggest exploitation of our sector’s good will is the government itself. The British arts and culture sector, a world leader and significant source of revenue from leisure and tourism spending is built on an exploitative foundation of unpaid labour – that we all willingly collude in rather than sacrifice the arts ecology we love. But with five more years of devastating austerity to face, by continuing to do so we will be subsdising a government whose every policy undermines the sustained health of our cultural ecology.
Now is the time to form a strategic resistance movement. It’s time we started being more pragmatic and thought seriously about how we deal collectively and strategically with cuts as they happen. We need a code of best practice for working under austerity, to make sure that panicked, scattergun and disjointed responses to localised cuts do not unnecessarily undermine the whole sector.
First of all, we need to start talking publicly about cuts as they happen; even when it feels like failure, even when we’re scared for our reputation or influence. We need to seek advice and support from audiences, artists and other colleagues across the sector and respond in a measured, thoughtful way to reductions in our budgets.
Secondly, we need to think collectively as a sector about how best to cut. With an eye to the future, we need to decide what should go first and what be protected at all costs. There’s lots of anecdotal evidence that salaries have stayed constant as freelance fees have shrunk and movements like “I’ll show you mine” have generated clear evidence of the effect this has on independent practitioners, stifling their ability to innovate and killing off the roots of our ecology.
We need to make sustaining our ability to make art the first priority for every brilliant person in our sector. It is this art that will endure to inspire and transform the future. While the complex systems we have evolved to support art and artists are incredibly valuable, we must never lose sight of what they exist to serve. Protecting the diversity, innovation and wondrousness of our artistic landscape must trump all other concerns –even if that means choosing to shrink infrastructure. We need to fund artists more directly, cut out the middlemen and foster innovation and artistic risk on the micro scale that will one day feed into the mainstream.
We need to re-evaluate the value of buildings. Yes, many arts buildings have grown dilapidated through the continued neglect of underfunding, but let’s never forget that those buildings only exist to give the art somewhere to happen. If we continue to pump money into new building projects as the artistic roots of our ecology wither and starve, then we will be left with nothing but empty monuments to the lost glory of our artistic landscape.
Finally, and perhaps most difficult, we must let the damage from the cuts show by reconsidering our willingness to work for free. Not just in the ‘profitshare’ fringe shows, but in our cultural flagships where members of staff put in hundreds of unpaid hours to mitigate against government cuts. We must start considering the withdrawal of our free labour as an act of resistance; as industrial action; as political activism. It’s a risky strategy, but a necessary one. Let’s show them the true value of what they are losing. Until the political class truly understand the value of our cultural landscape, they will never seek to protect it.