Chrissie Tiller on Thatcher's legacy for business models in the arts.

How ironic that the day before the death of Margaret Thatcher was announced two articles about our National Theatre appeared in one of our leading (left of centre?) newspapers.

I say ironic because of their headlines. While one lauds “The National Theatre” under Hytner as “a template for British business"1, the other extols “the public-private partnership” it has forged as “a blueprint for the subsidised arts sector.”2

On the Sunday I did wonder how, should I have been Artistic Director of the National Theatre for ten years, I might have felt about these contributions to my valediction. The next day’s news put both into grim perspective. Partly in terms of the continuing shadow that Thatcherite arts and culture funding policies cast over the subsidised arts; a legacy, Billington points out, we are still trying to live with the consequences of.3 But more importantly, in thinking about what we now seem to see as praiseworthy in the arts in our increasingly disenfranchised, disrupted and divided society. 

This new economic model, a “powerful partnership of artistic and commercial leadership”4  is presented not only as something arts organisations should be aspiring towards; it is offered as a solution to our current problems. Furthermore, we are told it is a policy “endorsed by Sir Peter Bazalgette, new Chair of Arts Council England.”5 Sir Peter being in favour of the "grand partnership" of “slimmed-down public subsidy” or "seed corn investment"6 and alliances created between arts and culture, local government, business and higher education, entrepreneurship (displayed by increasingly business-minded arts organisations); and fundraising.7

It would also be interesting to see how many philanthropic Lloyd Dorfmans are going to put their hands into their pockets to fund, not a state-of-the-art theatre... but a small, locally based, arts programme.

Most arts organisations would agree that all the above are essential elements of survival. We are incredibly entrepreneurial and resilient as a sector, prepared to duck and dive in whatever ways are necessary in order to keep the work happening.  We are also keen on partnership: although it’s interesting to imagine what contribution local authorities and universities, decimated by their own arts and culture funding cutbacks might make to this prototype. Sadly, few arts organisations are as fortunate as the National Theatre, the Tate or the RSC in being able to draw on what are still very substantial Arts Council grants. Sorry Mr Taylor, I cannot join you in bemoaning a 15% cut to the £millions public subsidy afforded these institutions. It’s a bit like Iain Duncan Smith telling us how difficult it was for him to be on the dole for a brief period in the '80s whilst living in a stately home owned by his in-laws.

It would also be interesting to see how many philanthropic Lloyd Dorfmans are going to put their hands into their pockets to fund, not a state-of-the-art theatre that is going to be named after them, but a small, locally based, arts programme. The state funding that we give the national institutions gives them the kudos, the leverage to invite commercial partners, businesses or philanthropists to share in the brand, the glory and the possibility of seeing their name in lights, in what was supposed to be a National institution, in perpetuity.  The number of arts organisations able to offer all this can be counted on one hand.

I would like to think that the arts could make an important offer to business, to the rest of our society, in these difficult and very visibly divisive times. As we look back at what Thatcherism imposed on our nation in terms of privatisation, unemployment, the growth of child poverty and the destruction of public housing, I would also like to think that it would be something more meaningful than an effective business model.  

Where, for example, are we going to find those pieces of theatre that Billington quite rightly honours as being part of the resilience of the '80s? From Brenton and Howard’s “Short, Sharp Shock” to Churchill’s “Top Girls” and “Serious Money”, nailing “the spirit of an age in which greed was good and virtually any amoral action was vindicated by profit,”8 to Ayckbourn’s “A Small Family Business” exposure of the total hypocrisy involved in sanctifying “traditional family values” whilst promoting “individual greed”9.  Where, when arts organisations are feeling more and more constrained by the self-censorship that comes from nervousness around reduced funding sources, the power of the sponsor etc, will we uncover the voice of opposition and dissent?

Surely what we should be celebrating in the leaders of our public arts institutions, in a country where Thatcherism’s “brutal widening of inequality” is being continued in other guises, is the ways in which they are offering alternative visions of what our society both might be and is. It’s true they have spoken out on arts funding cuts and the role of the arts in the EBacc but they also have the possibility, through their programming, their relationships with funders and the voices they choose to champion, to contribute to the debate in much wider terms. The voices of alternative commentators, such as Owen Jones10,  are important and increasingly heard. But if we really believe that arts and culture have a contribution to make to how we think, live our lives, take care of our fellow citizens, then please let us find ways to offer really alternative models of working -ones based on a radical re-questioning of values, not a creative industries fudge of what the ex-chiefs of HBOS, Barclays or the Royal Bank of Scotland offered us.