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Thursday, 2 August, 2001, 16:54 GMT 17:54 UK
Arts world's search for answers
The BBC's Arts correspondent Rosie Millard looks at the dilemma over how to spend money in the arts world - and how to tell if it is a success.

Is this the death knell for Cool Britannia?

No sooner has everyone finished celebrating the first year of Tate Modern, the British Museum et al, than the Policy Studies Institute comes along with a bunch of statistics and spoils the party.

Its 700-page report, The UK Cultural Sector, which came out last week, shows that far from booming, audiences for the arts are at worst shrinking and at best stagnating.

Cast of the musical Cats
Cats: Could money be better-spent?
Editor of the report Sara Selwood revealed an array of pie charts, graphs and the like which showed that firstly, statistics and figures are thin on the ground with arts companies.

But what figures there are show an 8% decline in arts audiences since the arrival of the lottery.

Quite apart from the deflating news that British cultural life is not quite as fervently awake as we had all believed, the lack of statistical evidence for anything - ethnic attendance, education, appreciation, diversity - was, said Ms Selwood, not good enough.

The Department of Culture demands that arts bodies be accountable, and arts policies measurable.

What we have here, according to Ms Selwood, is a multi-million pound industry paid for in part by the public but which cannot answer for every subsidised penny it spends.

Unquantifiable

"The figures are inaccurate and incomplete," she said. "There is no evidence for the effectiveness of subsidy in art."

Well, what a surprise. Culture, art, creativity - call it what you will - is resolutely unquantifiable and unmeasurable.

There is simply no formula that can reveal why, for example, Tom Stoppard thrives in the West End but Simon Gray does not do so well. Or why Cymbeline is a hit this year at the Globe Theatre.

Of course, a good play is a good play. And so is good acting. And nice reviews bring in audiences.

Illogical fortunes

Why, then, did the fabulous City of Angels starring Henry Goodman and Hadyn Gwynne die at the Prince of Wales Theatre?

Why is the refurbished and well-received Witches of Eastwick struggling? Why, for that measure, is Cats still running?

Tracy Emin
Emin: Provokes heated dinner party discussion
Why was Tate Modern so popular from the word go? And the Dome so loathed?

Then there is this idea of "effectiveness" in the cultural sector. If art itself is unquantifiable, then the effects of art are even more so.

Who knows how effective art is? What is the point of funding galleries, exhibitions, opera or dance? To give culture to already cultured boffins? To excite children who may not have had the chance to see song and dance on a stage before? To bring in tourists?

All, or none of the above may be true.

Is the RSC's production of Les Miserables, now in its nth year in the West End, an effective use of subsidy?

Or is subsidy better spent producing small shows in a mobile theatre specially built for the regions than grooming a big musical which now brings upward of a million pounds a year in box office back to the RSC?

Banging on

When you throw these issues back to the Institute, it repeats blankly that they are simply a measuring body, finely honed for number crunching.

And because the Department of Culture has been banging on about measurements, measurements will be what are provided, to show up the Department's clients in sharp relief.

Tate Britain
"Why fund Tate Britain anyway?"
At the end, it comes down to those conversations so beloved by grumpy people at supper parties.

"Why fund Tate Britain anyway?" someone said to me last night.

"The Turner Prize just attracts a whole lot of proles to come charging round, not knowing what they are looking at." Ooh, how inflammatory.

And that was before the remarks about Emin's bed, Hirst's shark, Ofili's dung and Duchamp's urinal.

Alleiviate slide

But with this sort of cant and the 700-page report alike, all you can do in the end is trot around the same old course, about how art is necessary for a civilised society, how art can change lives, how art can provide a crucial spark of something which mere breadwinning and child-raising on their own cannot.

Meanwhile, the government - which to give it credit, appears to believe in all the above - has to try to alleviate the slide in audience figures.

Bringing back arts subjects to the core of the National Curriculum might be a help. As would efforts like the recent increase to late-night openings at galleries and museums.

And more funds to regional centres, which as ever get a somewhat raw end of the deal.

The Institute says it will be back in five years with another barrage of numbers, and another 700 pages for us all to contemplate.

See also:

02 Aug 01 | Arts
West End ticket sales rise
11 Jun 01 | TV and Radio
Tessa tackles in-tray
11 May 01 | Arts
First birthday for Tate Modern
27 Feb 01 | Entertainment
Arts world at Downing Street
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