‘Losers and winners’: A reflection on the merits of arts funding ‘cuts’

Emeritus Professor Richard Foulkes, University of Leicester

Richard Foulkes University of LeicesterA few points to start with: for ‘cuts’ read ‘debts’, without the debts there would be no need for cuts; the reductions are relative, they only take us back to 2008 levels of spending; they are undoubtedly necessary (cf Ireland, Portugal and Greece); the arts certainly should bare their share, to claim some sort of ‘reserved occupation’ status would be insupportable.

As with high levels of public spending generally the correlation with quality and efficiency remains uncertain. There has been a drop in in-house productions (once regarded as the hallmark of the repertory movement) at many subsidised theatres; the distinction between subsidised and commercial has been blurred with touring productions playing at both types of theatre; joint productions have increased, but have there been cost benefits?; the number and range of administrative staff expands as revealed in the credits in the (overpriced) programmes, savings tend to fall on the ‘front-line services’, the actors whose contracts provide only short-term security.

These are issues that the Arts Councils and the government need to address. Encouragingly the Arts Council of England has used the opportunity provided by the ‘cuts’ to review what I think is called its ‘client base’. This is necessary from time to time. Whilst attendance is a measure of market forces, ongoing subsidy can be taken for granted protecting a company which no longer exhibits the quality that led to the original award.

Uncle_Vanya_Belgrade Theatre Coventry

Poster from Uncle Vanya by Belgrade Theatre Coventry in co-production with the Arcola Theatre

Based on my personal experience of two losers (Almeida and Shared Experience) and one winner (Arcola) it looks as though ACE got it right. Early in March I attended the Almeida Theatre in Islington to see a lacklustre American piece Becky Shaw. There was a long queue for returns and surely a four-hander playing to full houses for six to seven weeks should cover its costs. With Coutts as its ‘principal sponsor’ the Almeida can look after itself, a position to which its autumn 2011 programme does indeed seem to be reconciled. When I went to Bronte in late March I had not seen Shared Experience for several years and found that its house style was still much as I remembered it, but without the original flair. In contrast the Belgrade Theatre Coventry co-production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya with the now well-funded Arcola company was a triumph: faultlessly cast, atmospherically set, a production to stand comparison with even the legendary Olivier revival at the National Theatre in the 1960s.

Hearing of a former colleague who had taken his daughter to see Uncle Vanya led me to reflect on the relative costs of such an outing compared with one to say a Leicester City football match. Of course Jeremy Bentham’s view was that ‘the value’ of amusements lay ‘exactly in proportion to the pleasures they yield…Prejudice apart, the game of push-pin is of equal value with the arts and sciences of music and poetry’.  Why not subsidise football as well as or instead of the arts? Or neither?

‘The ruse by which the educated classes ensure that their favoured pastimes are handsomely subsidised for their own benefit is to claim that they must be priced within the reach of the lowly paid even though there is little interest or demand from that quarter which has its own preferred amusements.’ Discuss.

Richard Foulkes is Emeritus Professor of Theatre History at the School of English, University of Leicester

Professor Foulkes specialises in drama and theatre history concentrating on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He has published most extensively on the Victorian theatre with three monographs: Church and Stage in Victorian England, Performing Shakespeare in the Age of Empire and Lewis Carroll and the Victorian Stage: Theatricals in a Quiet Life. He has contributed to Shakespeare Survey and other leading journals, was an Associate Editor for the New Dictionary of National Biography and was General Editor of Publications for the Society for Theatre Research. He is editor of a collection of essays on Sir Henry Irving (Henry Irving: A Re-evaluation (Ashgate)) and has written the Macready volume in the Chatto and Pickering ‘Shakespearean Actors’ series.

Professor Foulkes has published on twentieth-century dramatists including Rattigan, Wesker, Nichols and Stoppard. He is the Chairman of the Society for Theatre Research.


  1. Chris Williams
    Posted 05/06/2011 at 10:45 | Permalink

    You say that There has been a drop in in-house productions and mention the Almeda but ignore the amazing Royal Court, the Donmar and even the Menier. They have all created successful productions that have toured the regional theatres. Being in London they can generate sufficient income to create new productions but without some subsidy we risk losing out nationally. Is the Edinburgh Festival subsidised? I don’t know but, if it is, look what it has given us.

    Is there a case for subsidising football? Does not the Sports Council already do that and is not Cardiff partly supported by the City Council? Let him who is without benefit cut the first subsidy.


    Richard Foulkes Reply:

    Thanks for your comment. With only 500 words I was v limited so could not refer to the Royal Court & other deserving ACE clients.


  2. Rural Retreat
    Posted 03/06/2011 at 20:38 | Permalink

    An interesting piece. Putting aside the fact there is sometimes precious little amusement at Leicester City some Saturdays and one is very tempted to push pins in one’s eyes, it is good to hear someone knowledgeable about theatre critique the lazy subsidies enjoyed by some companies.

    I think there is a strong case to subsidise the arts. Without them we would be poorer as a species. And the free market is imperfect at generating new and compelling content. But I would very much agree with the proposition that subsidies should be regularly challenged.


    Richard Foulkes Reply:

    Thanks for your comments which clearly take on board some of the points I wanted to make.


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