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Arts cuts hit small groups that nurture future talent

This article is over 10 years, 9 months old
Artist, lecturer and writer Philippa Thomas shows how the cut in arts funding affects the hopes and dreams of ordinary students
Issue 2247

This term I got my first-year students to create manifestos for the future of the arts.

At first, many didn’t see the point of the task. One even suggested that she didn’t really think anything needed to change, it was OK as it was.

But then they started to read other artists’ manifestos and realise the scope, passion and vision that an artist can have.

Their own manifestos spoke of equality (both within and beyond the art world), education (about the value of the arts, right to higher education, fears about the increase in fees) and employment (artists’ working lives are notoriously unstable and unpredictable).

These students inspire and educate me every time I meet with them, and I am enormously worried for their futures.

The government’s arts cuts are shaped by a logic which only conceives of human labour in terms of the market.

The government has planned the cuts based on the organisations and artists who currently most closely match their agenda, with little thought of providing for the future.

They haven’t considered that the arts generate far more income than they cost—and even if they didn’t, they improve our quality of life.

The arts have their own ecology. Talent is nurtured by smaller organisations before it emerges and is passed on to larger bodies.

Some of these smaller groups will be closed by cuts of 15 percent and that will malnourish the whole sector.

Similarly, the increasing difficulties facing foreign artists wishing to obtain visas to work or study in Britain shows a lack of understanding and imagination on the government’s part.

Where do they think new ideas come from? What do they think cultural development is?

In visual arts they invest in well established companies and organisations that would have have no problem generating their own revenue. Instead they should support organisations which provide invaluable support for artists early in their careers like Manchester’s Castlefield Gallery.

They have just cut 100 ­percent of the grant to the dance troupe The Cholmondeleys & The Featherstonehaughs, which makes innovative and genuinely edgy work.


At the same time they have substantially increased funding for established, glamorous, profitable and conservative choreographers like Wayne McGregor and Akram Khan.

It’s ironic that the government delights in “creative” finance but won’t support arts organisations that don’t have a traditional business model.

Culture secretary Jeremy Hunt’s assertion that private and corporate philanthropy can take the place of state subsidy ignores the fact that corporations tend to plump for ostentatious or assuredly “important” work that can hang in a lobby and increase in market value.

They are more hesitant to support work which is process-driven, risky or ephemeral.

Many of the government’s actions will be defended on the grounds that they maintain an arts “legacy”. But in reality legacy is something that is actively created and maintained by those with a vested interest.

I remember seeing Munira Mirza (now Boris Johnson’s director of arts, culture and the creative industries) speak at my college a few years ago.

She criticised the Tate for its democratic and inclusive teaching schemes, and suggested that children should be taught the “correct” interpretation rather than using their imaginations.

Presumably she sees the idea of non-traditional learners finding alternative models as something to be discouraged.

Several of my students are having to fund their undergraduate study themselves because it’s their second degree and loans are not available.

They are students from working class and immigrant families who were unable to consider doing an arts degree the first time round.

They bring a welcome maturity and experience to the school, but are often under more pressure than their peers and we need to better support them.

There is no doubt that the arts lag behind many other industries in terms of diversity, but the situation has been slowly improving thanks to the tireless work of organisations aimed at increasing access to arts.

These include organisations like Youth Dance England—which has just had its funding entirely cut.

What makes contemporary art rich and valuable is its diverse range. If we lose that we may as well take up jobs in finishing schools.

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