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British arts may have to follow the American way

Christopher Werth Aug 23, 2010

British arts may have to follow the American way

Christopher Werth Aug 23, 2010


Bill Radke: Generally speaking, arts organizations over in Europe have had a pretty good deal. Theaters and museums get a lot of their funding from taxpayers. Well, that’s gonna have to change. Most European governments are planning deep budget cuts. And in Britain at least, those arts organizations are being told, “Folks, it’s time to do things like the Yanks do.”

Christopher Werth reports on the UK’s move toward more private arts funding.

Christopher Werth: It’s opening night at the Bush Theatre in West London, and the cast is running through a few final scenes before show time.

Woman, singing: Take heed my dear, there’s much to fear — from fruits that we do not grow…

This tiny, but influential theater has been crammed into the rooms above a pub for nearly 40 years. Until now, it received generous public subsidies. But this fall, Britain will slash billions worth of spending, and that means organizations like the Bush Theatre could face cuts as high as 25 percent.

Josie Rourke is the artistic director.

Josie Rourke: A cut of that magnitude would be grievous, and actually, it would be a very different Bush Theatre.

Arts organizations fear those cuts could force theatres and museums to close all over the country. To make up the shortfall, the government is urging them to raise more private money from wealthy donors and corporate sponsors.

Colin Tweedy: Every arts organization is being told, much to their fury, “Look at the American system, talk to American donors, see how you can model yourself on an American fundraising pattern.”

Colin Tweedy heads up the nonprofit group Arts & Business. He says British arts organizations began copying that American model over the past couple of decades as public funding started to dry up. He says the arts in Britain have faced funding cuts in past downturns, but not quite like this.

Tweedy: The arts community is like Count Dracula. You can’t kill a vampire, unless you stab it through the heart with a wooden stave. But this time will be different, because the recession is so big, so deep that they won’t recover for a generation.

The last time things were this bad, the UK took a more Keynesian approach. In fact, the economist John Maynard Keynes set up the Arts Council — the body that doles out public money — to kick start the arts after the Second World War. The Council’s chief executive Alan Davey says a lot of that money gets returned to the government through taxes on things like increased tourism and ticket sales.

Alan Davey: If you like, it’s R&D venture capital funding. And it produces risky, innovative work that takes the art form to new places.

Take the Bush Theatre. It’s known for it’s avant garde work. It’s expected to receive over $800,000 from the Arts Council this year — although now, that’s up in the air. But Josie Rourke says it will be hard to get wealthy patrons in Britain to cover the difference. That’s because they can’t shield their money by giving it away tax-free like donors can in the U.S.

Rourke: It will really need something big, such as reform in taxation, so that the same or similar tax breaks are available as are in America, which let’s be clear, one of the very big incentives for giving.

But with the British government short on cash, don’t expect to see those tax breaks anytime soon.

In London, I’m Christopher Werth for Marketplace.

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