Making Money From The Arts
In today’s Guardian Suzanne Moore points out that the role of an arts college has been quietly changing behind our backs. 80 students have been occupying Central Saint Martin’s, which is planning to ditch 580 foundation course places. These are the one-year courses which are all that now remain of the free art school system open to all. The arts have been under attack for as long as I can remember but there was never a question about placements in art colleges before – but they were never so blatantly run as businesses before.
What has happened it that it has become fashionable in several Far East countries to send your child to a British art college. The University of the Arts London now largely caters to Chinese and Malaysian students, and as Moore points out, it has become a finishing school for the rich. This is naturally something no-one feels comfortable discussing, as it plays into the UKIP ‘Comin’ over ‘ere…’ mentality, but Moore is right to air the topic.
There has always been a general attitude in the UK that the arts don’t pay off for anyone. My careers adviser warned me to avoid the arts because he didn’t think I could make a living from it. He couldn’t see that music, architecture, writing, painting, graphics, fashion, product design, industrial design, film and sculpture would ever offer a proper career to someone, and didn’t see how they fed into every single area of our lives.
In the 1980s a series of spectacular blunders undermined the arts, from the removal of subsidies to the cancellation of tax breaks. Roy Porter recalls walking a visibly bored Margaret Thatcher around the V&A and realising she simply didn’t understand the point of it all. It’s true that in postwar Britain the emphasis was on rebuilding craft skills, sciences and engineering, but the attitude remained. Few complain about taxpayers’ money being wasted on endless heel-dragging reports into council spending, but if one theatre company is given a grant to stage material of a challenging nature, someone always questions it.
So, what good are the arts if they don’t bring in cash? A friend of mine has one answer. He works with a theatre company that made a study of their audiences. They found that very few seniors came to their plays at night. It turned out that they lived in areas that had gone downhill, and weren’t comfortable with the idea of going home in the dark. After some research conducted door-to-door, they found that there was a time when pensioners would consider going to see a play – at 5pm on a Sunday. So they began staging plays at this time, and found themselves with full houses, connecting with people who had felt cut off.
What has improving the quality of life for seniors in the Midlands got to do with Chinese students in a London art college? Rather a lot, because if fewer students train to work here, there will be fewer such life-enhancing schemes. The university won an injunction against 15 of its own students, denying their right to protest.