Leading article

James McAvoy is wrong – the arts are better off without subsidy

If state schools are being pushed away from the arts, how did 76,000 of their pupils end up taking drama GCSE last year?

14 March 2015

9:00 AM

14 March 2015

9:00 AM

The season of cringe-making acceptance speeches at arts awards ceremonies is nearly over, thank heavens. But it hasn’t passed without a most fatuous contribution from James McAvoy as he accepted a nomination for best actor at the Olivier Awards this week. He should have stuck to sobbing and thanking his agent. Instead, he launched a feeble and trite attack on the government for supposedly thwarting social mobility by failing to fund the arts. According to McAvoy’s thesis, ‘Art is one the first things you take away from society if you want to keep [people] down.’

It’s true that several of the British stars in prominent recent films attended private schools — something that McAvoy says doesn’t bother him, even if it has upset shadow arts minister Chris Bryant. But that isn’t for want of drama courses at state schools. Last year, 76,000 students took a GCSE in drama, far more than took Economics (5,400), Latin (10,000), German (60,000) and not all that short of the 97,000 who took IT and the 137,000 who took Physics. Putting drama at the heart of the curriculum, as many schools have done over the past couple of decades, may even be part of the social mobility problem.

Paul Roseby, director of the National Youth Theatre, has asked for drama to be taken off the national curriculum — not because he doesn’t approve of children acting but because he thinks the GCSE is seen as a soft option. Instead, he suggested drama ought to be integrated into other subjects. His intervention predictably raised howls of protest from drama teachers fearing for their jobs — and who equate the school curriculum with the artistic life of the nation. When state schools entice children into taking subjects which have little chance of making them more employable, a great disservice is done. The acting profession simply cannot absorb huge numbers of graduates.

The row ties into a wider debate about schooling and its purpose. Michael Gove was attacked by the arts establishment for trying to return rigour to the curriculum and for showing a preference for subjects which employers find attractive. So it was he, not James McAvoy, who was committed to improving the life chances of poor children. It is depressing that teachers who agreed with Gove felt unable to admit as much in public, as Emily Hill describes on page 30.

McAvoy’s intervention is part of a wider phenomenon of whingeing about the arts. For years, actors and artists have issued warnings about the terrible effect of this government’s cuts but, five years on, Britain’s arts have never been in better health. Last year, for example, the number of visitors to government-sponsored museums rose by two million. Children account for 280,000 of that increase. Austerity has obliged these museums to draw more money from visitors by thinking of better ways to ask for money and other methods. So private donations have grown by 50 per cent. The British Museum has more than doubled the amount it receives in just three years.

The Courtauld, whose Goya exhibition is reviewed by Martin Gayford on page 50, has just opened a new drawings gallery where it can show off some of its 7,000 works by artists such as Dürer, Rembrandt and Michelangelo under specialist conditions.

The Gate Theatre, which Lloyd Evans visited for his review on page 54, is doing a roaring trade — last year it took 73 per cent more at the box office than its target. Individual funders gave 60 per cent more than the previous year.

The arts in Britain are booming — because brilliant men and women in our theatres, museums and art galleries have found ways of making their institutions flourish in an age of austerity.

Subsidising the arts risks stifling them because it puts a small group of patricians in a position of acting as arbiters of taste. They decide what goes ahead, what is promoted and what is rejected. Like any group of people, however hard they try to be fair, they will end up favouring certain types of work. It would be far better for the arts (as well as for artists) if subsidies stopped and the money saved was put towards reducing or even eliminating VAT on tickets. In 2010, the government collected £75 million by taxing London theatre tickets, and spent £100 million on theatre through the Arts Council — so the government is really just sucking money out of the theatre and pumping it into a few favoured areas. Ending this would prick the egos of the artists who see a virtue in unpopularity, but it would help the many theatres and production companies which manage without subsidy.

Like so many areas of government spending, we have ended up with a bizarre mix of taxes on the one hand and subsidies and tax breaks on the other — each of them designed at some point to keep arts lobbyists happy, but leading to an irrational mess. It is time arts funding was rationalised and reduced, with some money perhaps supporting educational activities, but plays, films, music and everything else being left to fight it out in the marketplace.

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  • misomiso


    Is a shame that rational argument doesn’t seem to work in our society with regards to public funding. The trouble is that Arts lobby is so strong and Left of Center that any cut in public funding is portrayed as an assault of the least well off by the evil Tories.

    Never mind that some of our greatest artists like Shakespeare or Gilbert and Sullivan came from private sponsorship or the private sector.

    The Truth is that a Majority Right of Center Government could do wonderful things to liberate the Arts, the Media (bbc and C4) and other sectors of society from the Tyranny of the state.

    Such a shame the Pro Europeans ruined and split us. Maybe once we are out then we can start to put things right.

  • WTF is an “arts lobbyist”? Also, what are exec producers at a film company if not ” patricians in a position of acting as arbiters of taste”? Is that why the public is subjected to vanity projects like After Earth, etc…

    • Malcolm Stevas

      Film producers as “arbiters of taste”? That might have surprised Sam Goldwyn. They respond to the market, just like any commercial enterprise. So most films are schlock, with just a few goodies? Same applies to brands of instant coffee. Or politicians…
      The arts do not and should not require taxpayer subsidy. First step: scrap the Dep’t for Culture, Media & Sport, an absurd body if ever there was one.

      • respond to the market… not so much fuzzy bear, if they responded to the market then every film they released would be a financial success, if they were responding to the market that is.

        you say the arts “do not” require subsidy, which is demonstrably false since they do need it. arts subsidy does little more than provide the right economic conditions for a lot of culture work to happen. you come from a position that the only reason something should exist is if the economic conditions are right and that’s kinda sad….. so cheer up, move on, go to a theatre, get some ice- cream…

        • Malcolm Stevas

          Your position implies that “culture work” [sic] did not exist and indeed could not have done, prior to public subsidy through taxation.
          This is demonstrably false.
          As for “if they responded to the market then every film they released would be a financial success” you seem to have a curious view of how markets operate.

          • “”culture work” (sic)” we see what you did there, that’s clever, except it’s not, but we’ll thrown you a bone.

            Markets don’t work dude, they never have, it’s all guess work, like the ad at the top of this piece that’s supposed to target the reader, means nothing to us though, that’s how good most marketing is.

            Don’t bore us with your free market economy crap…

          • Malcolm Stevas

            OK, I get it: you are Dave Spart. Hint: it’s that nasty “free market economy crap” which provides the wealth, and the taxation, to keep you cosily in your benefits-subsidised bedsitter from which you can emit subliterate, sub-Marxist, er, crap.

          • oh no, it’s a Marxist hater……. here, on the Spectator Website, shall we alert the village elders? Also, what the hell is “bedsitter”, it’s the 1970’s all over again…

          • Malcolm Stevas

            OK, you’re Dave Spart, and you’re only 19.

          • MC73

            Imbecile19. You might want to look up the difference between ‘markets’ and ‘marketing’. You can find free dictionaries online, thanks to markets.
            The arts do not need state subsidy. Proof? The whole of civilisation pre-1950 (or thereabouts). In fact, seeing the dross that tax receipts and lottery cash have produced suggests that state subsidy is a barrier to artistic expression.

          • everything? so you’ve seen every single piece of publicly funded culture ever created since the 1950s, wow, you must be quite the supporter of publicly funded art…. thank you for your support! :o)

          • Ooh!MePurse!

            Oh good grief, you are a complete ignoramus.

          • oooooh, we shall slap you with a leather glove and call you a bounder a cad and a….. something else that reeks of the 1890’s…… stop reading the spectator and the telegraph, it’ll do funny things to your mind, such as it is!

          • Ooh!MePurse!

            That was a lot of words to say nothing.

  • grammarschoolman

    ‘how did 76,000 of their pupils end up taking drama GCSE last year?’

    And every time you go to an art gallery, you can’t move for packs of howling schoolchildren, ruining things for the people who actually want to be there. The arts should be banned from schools, not encouraged even further.

    • you sound like the bad guy from a Scooby Doo cartoon….

  • Barbara Storey

    “When state schools entice children into taking subjects which have
    little chance of making them more employable, a great disservice is
    done.” If this is your view of education, then you are the one in the wrong. Life is not about becoming another churned-out drone in the workforce.

  • The Manchesterist

    It is no surprise that the two art forms in which the British are really world leaders – novels and pop music – are the least subsidised.

  • molend

    I very much enjoy football, which isn’t subsidised. And Italian opera, which is. I also quite like looking at paintings. The old lady upstairs shares none of my interests. Why should any of her taxes go to fund my pleasures?

  • jack

    If you use the economic argument: £75m collected vs.£100m dispersed in no way accounts for the much larger, but difficult to quantify, sum associated with revenue raised from people who took the train to London, stayed in hotels, bought meals in restaurants, used taxis, bought souvenirs, paid to see Buckingham Palace etc. etc. because the West End was a deciding factor that led them to come to London.

  • chris

    Perhaps in the past, talented creatives could just about survive due to low rent costs, however, nowadays the basic cost of living in cities is exceptionally high and without funding the creatives will be forced into alternate careers to fund their existence. The other alternate is to move to a lower cost european city which provides funding and low rent – several in Germany come to mind

  • MrGrowser

    ‘If state schools are being pushed away from the arts, how did 76,000 of their pupils end up taking drama GCSE last year?’
    Quote from the drama teacher of the comedy programme ‘Big School’ to a parent:
    ‘Because you can get a C just for turning up and writing your name.’

  • rose pasmore

    And so how is it that Private schools still greatly value, and hold their Arts programmes in such high esteem? Because they are a huge motivation and draw for students: Schools with good Arts programmes are more trusted to fully understand a students needs and learning experience; what motivates them, helps them to integrate and to feel part of something bigger than themselves.

    Art is crucial in developing understanding of the world around and within each of us. Studying Arts promotes observational skills, and a greater depth of understanding form and perspective. It also greatly promotes and appreciation for the beauty in our surroundings and the importance in its preservation.

    Fran Smith writes why Arts and Music are key to student development ‘Strong arts programming in schools helps close a gap that has left many a child behind: From Mozart for babies to tutus for toddlers to family trips to the museum, the children of affluent, aspiring parents generally get exposed to the arts whether or not public schools provide them. Low-income children, often, do not. “Arts education enables those children from a financially challenged background to have a more level playing field with children who have had those enrichment experiences,” says Eric Cooper, president and founder of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education.’ http://www.edutopia.org/arts-music-curriculum-child-development

    I couldn’t disagree with the sentiment of this article more! I feel the Arts are more crucial in education than ever.