By Anthony Faiola
Wednesday, August 4, 2010; A01
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.
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.
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.
Alistair Spalding, artistic director of London's cutting-edge Sadler's Wells dance theater, said it may have no choice but to abandon the kinds of projects that helped redefine London's street art scene. Those include recent pieces like "Electric Hotel," which turned an abandoned plot of land into a venue where passersby became voyeurs as dancers moved behind transparent walls. "There is a crisis and cuts need to be made, but the arts are being singled out," he said. "This is going to seriously damage the image of London as a cultural hub."
The cuts are set to be so deep that some observers say even the famously free London museums might need to consider admission fees, potentially affecting the pockets of millions of tourists who flock to the British capital each year.
"I don't think these things happen by chance; the reason London saw such a cultural upsurge over the past 10 years clearly has much to do with the fact that London arts saw an injection of funding," said Charlotte Higgins, chief arts writer for the Guardian newspaper. "Now we are in danger of sinking behind."
Large arts institutions in Britain often garner more than 50 percent of their budgets from public funds, compared with roughly 10 percent for major institutions in the United States. That is precisely what the British government says must change. Although the cuts have not yet been detailed, some organizations, including the UK Film Council, are already in the process of being shut down. The government has also demanded major institutions come up with contingency plans for 25 to 30 percent reductions in public funding.
Officials from the ruling coalition are openly calling for a shift to U.S.-style fundraising to fill the gap. But critics insist it could take a generation or more to open the wallets of the British elite. Compared with the United States, there is a relatively small culture of philanthropy in Britain, with little special social status bestowed on corporations or wealthy individuals who support the arts. In addition, British tax codes offer comparatively less generous financial incentives for large donations.
Yet cultural leaders are largely resisting the notion of dramatically increased dependence on private funding, pointing to the severe shortfalls U.S. arts institutions faced as donors cut back in the aftermath of the recent financial crisis. They are also opposed on artistic grounds, insisting it would put more pressure on institutions to censor their works.
Spalding, for instance, said it was exactly the independence afforded by government funding that has helped London become a beacon for controversial pieces, such as one staged last year at Sadler's Wells in which the pope sexually abuses an altar boy through interpretive dance.
"In America, the art scene has become more conservative because it depends on private funding," Spalding said. "Sponsors are not interested in the young, experimental scene, and that's what I fear we may be about to lose -- our independence."
But Ed Vaizey, Britain's new culture minister, said in an interview that the national budget is facing unprecedented pressure. The government, he said, will attempt to phase in the harshest cuts over a number of years to lessen the impact. Yet in the long term, he said, institutions would need to rethink their business models because past levels of government funding are unlikely to come back.
He insisted that the best works, regardless of their subject matter, would find sponsors. He noted the case of "Enron," a British play that started in government-supported theater before finding private backers for a commercial run in London's West End. This, he said, despite what he called the work's "anti-capitalist themes."
"To be honest," he said, "I think we should spend more time recognizing that [the private sector] is prepared to fund the arts because they believe it's the right thing to do, and less time implying this will bring with it some form of censorship."