Sir Nicholas Serota says arts facing death by ‘starvation’

Galleries, theatres and performing groups across Britain will have to close if the Treasury forces through spending cuts, leading figures in the art world have warned.

Sir Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate galleries, said the prospect of a 10 per cent cut on top of existing reductions would put at risk arts organisations already facing “starvation conditions”.

“To say we can’t afford to have the arts as part of our lives is an admission of defeat as a nation and society,” Sir Nicholas told the Financial Times.

The pressures on arts funding were underlined this week after the Science Museum Group said one its three northern branches might have to shut down under cuts looming in the government’s June 26 spending review. This brought accusations that London’s cultural facilities were being protected at the cost of those in the regions.

Ian Blatchford, Science Museum Group director, said: “We are investigating a range of options but if an additional 10 per cent cut is made . . . there would be little choice other than to close one of our museums.”

The FT reported this week that Maria Miller, the culture secretary, was fighting “tooth and nail” against cuts to her £1.2bn budget with the Treasury, which she believed did not recognise the economic impact of the arts.

The outcome could determine the future of a raft of smaller groups that rely heavily on public funding. Stephen Deuchar, chief executive of the Art Fund, a national arts fundraising charity, said that “undoubtedly there will be closures” if the Treasury drives through the cuts. “It’s about a fight for survival.”

Arts institutions fear that when cuts to local authority budgets are announced, they will be disproportionately hit, since councils do not have a statutory obligation to fund the arts, unlike some other services.

Sir Peter Bazalgette, chairman of Arts Council England, the funding body, gave warning of the “double whammy” from cuts to Arts Council grants and council budgets. “Many are funded from both sources, so it’s meant twice the pain. Some local authorities are responding magnificently and preserving their arts budgets against the odds, but all are under pressure.”

As the Treasury decision approaches, arts leaders have been making a concerted case for the economic value of the creative sector. They cite the impact on tourism, hotels and restaurants, as well as the commercial gains that can be made from work that begins in the publicly funded sphere.

One example is War Horse, which began as an experiment in the National Theatre studio and was developed and produced for £550,000. It went on to become a hit play and Hollywood movie, raising £11m for the National Theatre.

There are other, more subtle benefits. Hasan Bakhshi, director of creative industries at the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, said: “If you’re in an advertising agency and you happen to be in a vibrant artistic location, you can imagine all the mechanisms by which your ideas and creative thinking are stimulated by the presence of these organisations. There’s evidence those ideas translate into commercial benefits.”

But he added: “My worry is there’s a risk local authorities don’t know what arts organisations are worth until they’ve closed them down.”

Funding problems are not always apparent. Mr Deuchar said years of increased capital spending had left museums “in better shape than ever” in terms of the quality of their buildings and exhibitions, “yet now they can’t afford to pay the curators or the operating expenses”.

London-based institutions with access to big audiences and a richer seam of sponsorship opportunities are seen as relatively protected. Recent figures from Arts & Business, a charitable organisation that develops partnerships, showed that the capital accounted for 90 per cent of UK private investment in the arts from individuals.

But Britain’s national arts bodies have traditionally relied on a pipeline of talent from the regions, trained in publicly funded organisations more willing to take artistic risks than their commercial cousins.

Sir Nicholas said that if the cuts were as deep as feared, “these nurseries will disappear, with long-term consequences for culture in the UK and our reputation abroad”.

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