There is increasing talk in UK government circles of encouraging philanthropy to step in where government is pulling back. But will it?
Not in the view of Nicolas Kent, who announced on 4 July that he is standing down as artistic director of the Tricycle theatre in Kilburn, north London after 27 years as a direct result of arts cuts. One of the UK’s longest serving and most respected artistic directors, since 1984 Kent has been building the Tricycle into a successful theatre, known particularly for its political plays and culturally diverse work. But a £350,000 cut in public subsidy and the government’s emphasis on philanthropy are making the theatre untenable, he told the Guardian newspaper.
Kent made his announcement on Monday 4 July, the day that culture secretary Jeremy Hunt was due to make an important speech on philanthropy in the arts. Philanthropy is not a panacea, said Kent, and it is difficult to attract philanthropic money for the kind of political theatre at which the Tricycle excels. This includes ‘verbatim plays’ drawn from public enquiries, most recently one called Tactical Questioning, based on the inquiry into the death of Baha Mousa, an Iraqi hotel worker in the custody of British soldiers.
According to Richard Norton-Taylor, writing in the Guardian on 5 July and author of several of these verbatim plays, ‘philanthropic donations, which the coalition government suggests theatres should rely on in future, tend to follow the theatres and programmes that audiences who make up the donors are comfortable with. It becomes a circle closed to those directors and theatres trying to promote cutting-edge or political work.
‘The government suggests Britain should take lessons of private and corporate philanthropy from the US. Yet American directors have looked with envy at their British counterparts as they have been starved of funds for performing new and political work.’
Kent also makes the point that the American model is not necessarily one to be envied and that many mid-sized US theatres are in big trouble. Nor, in his view, is this simply a matter of the government needing to make cuts.
‘I think the Tories would have cut the arts even without the banking crisis because they believe in philanthropy, which is completely wrongheaded,’ he said.
It is hardly surprising that the government should see an economic crisis as a perfect excuse to cut funding to radical political theatre. But it is sad that an emphasis on philanthropy should also be part of the excuse. I don’t believe that philanthropy can or should substitute for government spending, but in this case it seems particularly unlikely that it will step in and fill the breach.
The Guardian, 4 and 5 July