The idea of ‘the art world’ has become familiar, but in reality it is a divided world, joined at the hip yet diametrically opposed. The third part in this series looks at the connection between arts funding and the welfare state.

The other half of the art world, the other side of the multimillion pound auction sale, is largely not driven by profits, and largely doesn’t produce any, at least not for itself.

It’s difficult to know what proportion of artistic projects, works, productions etc. is supported by public funding. But in order to talk about arts funding we have to understand how it fits into a wider public sphere.

Public funding for the arts affects both artists and audiences. While the present government would like to reduce this relationship to one of producers and consumers, in fact a better metaphor would be that of public services. Theatres, galleries, films etc. should be thought of in the same vein as public libraries, as part of a larger sphere of culture. The line between artist and audience is often blurred, but this isn’t just an avant garde concept; it also comes out of reality.

Within this context it’s easy to see that many artists, whether they get direct Arts Council funding or not, rely on public funding of arts and culture to sustain their work. Most artists do a day-job alongside their artistic work. They fund their artistic work by diverting a portion of their own wages. Because there are no long-term state grants for artists (unlike, for example, in Sweden) and because so few artists achieve enough recognition to make their work self-supporting financially, having some other kind of employment is an absolute necessity. For many this employment is in the cultural sector – whether this is part-time work as a theatre usher or a teaching position at an art college. The majority of practising artists will also have gone through some kind of arts training at institutions which are publicly funded.

Those who relate to arts and culture as audience, user, participant etc., rely on public funding in the cultural sphere in a way that is comparable to how they rely on it for healthcare. Most forms of art, entertainment and culture that are commonly accessible to working people rely heavily on public funding, from the BBC, to free-entry galleries and museums, to subsidised theatre tickets, to public libraries.

The conclusion to draw from all this is that public funding for the arts is a part of the welfare state, and the arts lean heavily on this support. Being the major body that deals with public arts funding, the Arts Council reflects this. Like the rest of the welfare state, its origins stem from the post-war settlement.

In an excellent study of the privatisation of culture in the US and UK, Chin-Tao Wu has traced the history of arts funding. The Arts Council’s predecessor was the Arts Council of Great Britain, founded in 1945, which came out of the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA). CEMA’s role was partly couched in the somewhat jingoistic wartime logic of encouraging national culture and maintaining morale. But it also supported a surprisingly progressive programme of art, determined not by the usually perverse fusion of bourgeois fashion and the vagaries of the market, with rigorously experimental work by the avant garde; it was founded on the basic principle of making art a joyous and enlightening experience that reached into the corners of everyday life.

“Music travellers were appointed to give concerts in remote parts of the country, in churches, factory canteens, air-raid shelters, village halls, hostels, army camps and rest centres.” In the visual arts there was the Art for the People travelling exhibition of 1940, a series of shows “touring industrial towns such as Swindon and Barnsley,” and the “Art for British Restaurants Scheme was set up to provide paintings, lithographs and murals for improvised canteens.” This programme also helped give employment to artists during wartime conditions. “Some of the murals were carried out by established artists such as Duncan Grant, Graham Sutherland and John Piper… others were the works of local art students.” According to a CEMA publication of 1942/3, the organisation bought paintings for exhibitions “not to show supreme examples of art, but rather to give illustrations of pleasing and competent contemporary work which might be bought by ordinary people and lived with in ordinary houses” (pp.33-4).

Slogans like ‘art for the people’ raise serious questions about the nature of culture and its relationship to class. Programmes like CEMA risk making culture a form of ‘patrician noblesse oblige.’ The democratisation of culture can only be truly accomplished by the radical overturning of bourgeois society. But the functions of a body like CEMA form part of a package of reforms which are essential for socialists to fight for. They put down the roots of public arts funding, as eroded as it is in its current form.

Some of the lessons of wartime mobilisation – full employment, national industry, universal state services – filtered down into the arts. Nothing could apparently embody the new consensus better than the fact that the first head of the Arts Council of Great Britain was John Maynard Keynes.

Like the other branches of the new welfare state, the Arts Council was far from perfect, and far from a radical alternative to capitalism. It was rather part of a new state capitalism, based on arms spending and a compromise with labour in the form of welfare provision. While the new Arts Council established the ‘arms length principle’, which supposedly limited government influence over the arts, strong traces of its role as an organ of official state culture remained. One of the Council’s first major projects was the Festival of Britain in 1951, a cultural-technological extravaganza in the style of the Great Exhibition that was meant to announce Britain’s bold embrace of post-war modernity. And under the chairmanship of Keynes, CEMA’s pledge to deliver ‘the best for the most’, shifted emphasis sharply to the best. To quote a fellow member of Britain’s “informal ruling class,” conservative art historian Kenneth Clarke described Keynes as “not a man for wandering minstrels and amateur theatricals. He believed in excellence” (p.34).

The original purpose of public arts funding was gradually transformed over the years, edging towards elitism and a more corporate outlook. With Thatcher’s government public funding for the arts faced an all-out offensive. In 1979-80 almost £5 million was cut from arts spending of £63 million (still nowhere near the cuts we face today). The number of Regularly Funded Organisations (RFOs) was halved, and entrance fees were introduced at many institutions.

Norman Tebbit led the way on the ideological front, calling the Arts Council elitist and politically biased. People like Lord Gowrie, a self-declared ‘orthodox’ Thatcherite, were appointed as Arts Ministers. A 14-strong ‘sponsorship committee’ was established; sitting members included Sir Nevil Macready, Managing Director for Mobil Oil, and Colin Knowles, former Head of Public Affairs at Imperial Tobacco. Sub-departments like the Association for Business Sponsorship for the Arts (ABSA) and the Business Sponsorship Incentive Scheme (BSIS) were set up to encourage corporate sponsorship. Money was poured into the crusade of bringing art into the realm of business. Pamphlets delivering the new message were produced, like the 25,000 copies of The Arts are Your Business.

Richard Luce, Lord Gowrie’s successor as Arts Minister, announced in 1987 that, “There are still too many in the arts world who are yet to be weaned from the welfare state mentality.” To hurry the process along, Luce introduced ‘challenge funding’, while BSIS handed out cash rewards to business sponsors. And in successive Finance Acts Thatcher made it clear that the new policy in arts funding was part of general programme to create a climate in which the super-rich could out-do themselves: as part of relaxing the tax regime for the upper brackets, increased kickbacks for charitable giving and arts sponsorship were introduced (pp.54-63).

Arts funding has always been a contested space for both the left and the right. While New Labour got rid of entrance fees in 2001 and increased Arts Council funding over the years, the corporate penetration of the arts has only become more widespread. Hence we have Lord Browne, former CEO of BP – whose old company runs the BP portrait prize at the National Portrait Gallery – holding the chair of the Tate’s board of trustees, and meanwhile advocating the privatisation of higher education and the raising of tuition fees.


Chin-Tao Wu, Privatising Culture: Corporate Art Intervention Since the 1980s (Verso 2002)

Alistair Cartwright

Alistair Cartwright is an activist with the Stop the War Coalition and a member of Counterfire.