British government moves to dramatically cut public funding for the arts

Lucienne Day's textiles brought the look of modern art into many British homes in the years after World War II. A new exhibition at the Textile Museum at last gives her her due.
By Anthony Faiola
Wednesday, August 4, 2010

LONDON -- The art scene exploded in Britain over the past decade, giving rise to jewels like the Tate Modern museum on the silvery banks of the Thames and sparking a renaissance of playwrights, filmmakers, artists and dancers. The fuel for that boom: a surge in generosity from Britain's single biggest patron of the arts -- the government.

But now cash-strapped and desperate to slash the largest budget deficit in Europe, the new ruling coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats is moving to close the curtain on an era of what they describe as excessive government patronage.

(Photos of Prince William, Robert Pattinson and others at the British Academy of FIlm and Television Arts Awards)

The coalition is preparing to cut arts funding so dramatically that it could sharply reduce or sever the financial lifelines for hundreds of cultural institutions from the National Theatre to the British Museum.

The cuts would be more than a temporary fix. Officials are calling for a permanent shift toward the U.S. model of private philanthropy as the main benefactor of the arts, upending a tradition of government sponsorship that helped produce the likes of Academy Award-winning directors Sam Mendes and Danny Boyle and playwrights including Lee Hall, who was nominated for an Oscar for "Billy Elliot."

The move underscores the profound changes in the role of government that are taking place from Greece to Spain to Britain. It happens as European nations scramble to rein in runaway spending, in part by slashing public funds to sectors that came to survive -- even thrive -- because of them.

(Photos: Lucienne Day textile prints brought the look of modern art into many British homes in the years after WWII)

In Britain, public aid to theaters, museums and other institutions jumped from $654 million in 2000 to $876 million this year, with ramped-up funding for arts programs turning London, in particular, into a hotbed of young artistic talent. At the same time, the surge allowed refurbishments of historic theaters and grand openings of new galleries and museums.

Now, the budget cuts to the arts are a small part of a broader push by the coalition government to slash spending and right Britain's finances over the next four years. Although some areas, such as national health care, are being largely protected, virtually all sectors from education to defense are bracing for steep cuts.

But critics say the cuts to arts funding -- cultural leaders say they have been warned that reductions could reach 40 percent over four years -- appear set to be among the deepest.

The prospect of such a drastic rollback is sparking an anxious debate over the duty of government to foster the arts in the land of Shakespeare.

Panicked curators, artistic directors and art critics are warning of London's potential fall from the vanguard of the global arts scene. In danger, for instance, are the same government-funded institutions that helped produce such films as "The Last King of Scotland" and "The Constant Gardener" as well as Broadway- and Hollywood-bound stage works such as "Jerusalem" and "War Horse." The Royal Shakespeare Company has warned that it might be forced to scale back or do away with international productions altogether.

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