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Should we subsidise the arts?

1:05 pm - February 12th 2008

by Chris Dillow    

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Should there really be tax breaks for donations to the arts, as Paul Myners and Nicholas Serota demand here? The Pigovian case for such tax breaks is well-known; without them, there’d be an under-supply of such public goods. However, the egalitarian case for such breaks is very shaky, as this recent paper discusses.

It argues that donations to the arts can actually increase inequalities of well-being  in two ways – even leaving aside the possibility that such donations are really intended to boost the ego of the donor.

First, because the rich gain from donations by other rich people; if I donate to an art gallery, others’ donations will benefit me by improving the gallery, and by attracting attention towards my generosity. Second, because some of the non-rich go to art galleries more than others, inequalities between the non-rich might rise.

It’s possible, therefore, that such gifts actually increase inequalities. In such cases, philanthropy isn’t a substitute for redistribution, but actually strengthens the case for it. There are of course many arguments against redistributive taxes. However, the claim that they stop the rich giving to the arts is not one that should concince egalitarians.

This doesn’t mean there should be no tax breaks for charitable donations. What it means is that the case for such breaks lies in efficiency, not equality, and that there’s a big difference between the sort of philanthropy that benefits the poor directly and the sort, like art donations, that do not.

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About the author
Chris Dillow is a regular contributor and former City economist, now an economics writer. He is also the author of The End of Politics: New Labour and the Folly of Managerialism. Also at: Stumbling and Mumbling
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Reader comments

Surely there is also the issue that the rich will give to artists/venues that they like, which may not be the same artists/venues that the poor like. This creates a vicious circle of selection bias, which affects wider art movements and trends.

why are the arts regarded as a public good? doesn’t each individual pay to consume most form of art? I cannot free ride on others’ theatre or gallery tickets

The arts being subsidised DOES benefit the poor; it gives them an option of something to do which they would not otherwise be able to afford to do. Whether or not they choose to use that option is up to them. But whether or not it’s better to let rich buggers choose which arts to subsidise, or tax the rich buggers and let someone else decide is a thorny question. I can see downsides to both positions.

Subsidies in the interest of establishing universal basic standards – yes.
Subsidies to create uniform levels of quality – no.
Subsidies as a veil for favoritism – definitely no.

5. Margin4 Error

We should try to distinguish between arts. In particular we should distinguish between those to which the public have wide or limited acess.

For example, if there is something uplifting and glorious about a fine painting, and if that fine painting tells us something about our history, it seems right to encourage access to that painting to be as broad as possible.

So a case can then be made for art galleries being state funded and free to enter. The same goes for museum exhibits that help to educate and inspire people about the past. And again this should be dispersed widely to ensure all such provision isn’t only available to those with easy access to major population centres.

This must be the case because there is, by nature, only one of every exhibit.

That is very different to public funding of theatre or opera, which is a ludicrous subsidy to the wealthy.

After all, drama can be consumed for free thanks to television and radio. It can also be stored and enjoyed over and over again by those who choose to own a recording of that particular piece of art.

Of course seeing the Roling Stones live is different to listing to a tape of Brown Sugar. And seeing The Merchant of Venice at the Globe is likewise different to watching the BBC equivelent.

But the art itself is available freely and widely. And just as we don’t subsidise Roling Stones concerts, and we leave football matches to the free market too, we should question why opera and other performance art is not likewise left to those who wish to pay for it.

And doing that in turn might in fact drive demand, as many institutions might have to find new audiences to maintain themselves.

The case for Opera is a hard one to justify, as counterclaims of elitism are not easily dispelled. However I think if the alternative were abolition of opera altogether then the starting point prevents a productive argument.

I also don’t see the state as a vehicle exclusively for people at one end or the other of society, but for all. I therefore point out that in reducing the most exclusive and expensive of art forms the first people to suffer will be the poorest members of the audience who are only able to support the lowest tier of charges.

This is an old chestnut pitting delusions of maximalism against flawed concepts of minimalism, with the only sensible and inclusive outcome a recalibration of the optimal justifiable level in any specific case.

It is because art isn’t neutral that a special case must be made for parts of it, through the maintenance of vigilance against unfairness and politicisation and general scrutiny which ensures the artistic balance of entertainment, education and economy isn’t tipped up.

7. Margin4 Error


You seem to have missed my point. I’m not arguing that it should not be subsidised because only the wealthy benefit – I’m suggesting that the wealthy, along with the poor, can determine the market value of that benefit for themselves – and there is no market failure to be corrected by state help.

I suggest that because no argument can be made for its higher value to society. It is not clear what value live opera or theatre provides to the wider public that is not well costed.

As I say, there is only one Mona Lisa, so putting it on public display is an act of social benefit. The alternative is that a private buyer takes secluded ownership of it and thus it is rarely seen by any human being.

But the finest opera and drama is widely available thanks to television, radio and recorded sound and image. It might be that seeing opera or thetre live is different, but so too is seeing the Nat West Trophy live at Lords, or the FA Cup final at Wembley, or seeing Girls Aloud at GAY.

If some one wants to see such culture live, they pay for a ticket at a market value that helps meets the cost of the production of the show – and no one has ever made a good case for this being different with opera and theatre.

So Thomas

Is there any inherrant social value in live opera and theatre that falls prey to market failure?

And keep in mind – Porches are unaffordable for many – and that mere high price does not make a case for subsidising Porches.

No. “The arts” are entertainment for a middle class elite, nothing more. There is no more justification for subsidising them then any other past time – why don’t we subsidise football, or horse racing, or any of the less elite past times ? It particularly sickens me that money is taken from the working classes in the form of lottery tickets and used to subsidise the london based middle class cognoscenti poncing about at art galleries. Anyone who think it’s only opera that’s elitist is in denial – how many chavs do you see at the tate modern ? Let the middle classes pay the real cost of art, they can afford it.

9. Margin4 Error


Art galleries can make a good case because collections of art are part of our collective heritage, and each piece is unique, and so would thus only be available to the very very rich if they were not treated charitably.

Theatre and opera (and alas I’m more inclined to go to the theatre than an art gallery so I’m arguing for money to come out of my pocket here) can be perfectly well distributed via the market, thanks to video and broadcast technology, and thanks to performances being repeated time and again.

Lots of things are part of our colective heritage, I would argue that more people would identify with say, Englands world cup win in 66, as a cultural icon than with a Turner painting.
I don’t understand this assumption that cost is a barrier to “the poor” appreciating the arts. It isn’t. I recently visited the local museum/art gallery (completely free) and didn’t see a single working class/poor person, and it wasn’t just the usual dusty fossils on display, they had a (truly dreadfull) Yoko Ono exhibition on. If cost was a barrier and there really are hordes of chav culture vultures you would expect the place to be packed with track suits and tattoos ?
The poor are not interested in art, they have more pressing concerns. Asking why the poor don’t go to art galleries/the theatre, is like asking why the middle classes don’t race pidgeons or join a pub darts team. It’s nothing to do with money, they just aren’t interested.

Subsidising the arts makes no sense from the standpoint of helping the poor. Saying it enables them to go, which they would not be able to do, is a nonsense. Rather than just subsidising the art, which essentially results in subsidy for the middle class, use the funds to directly redistribute to the poor.
I get the feeling that this money would not them be used to visit art galleries. So what? As Munro said, if the aren’t intrested thats up to them- it is right and liberal to let them decide for themselves.
Indeed, for any non-essential (i.e healthcare) service, subsidies are wrong. It is always better to use the resources to work towards a circumstance of enabling people to have the resources to be able to choose for themselves if they should engage in the activity or not.

But isn’t there a contradiction here Tinter? On the one hand you want to give the money to them directly to have that choice. On the other you want to offer them the choice of going to the arts. But if the arts weren’t subsidised, then they wouldn’t have the choice to attend even if they had the money and option.

13. Margin4 Error


you have confused yourself.

Watching a DVD of the 66 world cup final is very much like watching a DVD of an opera performance. On that we agree – but there is no equivelent to a DVD of Michaelangelo’s David.

David cannot be replicated cheaply for widespread distribution as can an historic world cup final. There is no alternative access but that of visiting it.

Remember – this is not simply about encouraging poor people like me to go to galleries. It is not even about encouraging wealthy people like you to go. (I can’t afford a car but I don’t expect to be given one).

It is about ensuring that the inspiration and unity those artifacts can instil in people is instilled. The market alone would prevent that, and so our artistry as a nation would decline.

I may never go and see Monet’s paintings of London, but if some one does and is inspired to paint a great work of their own, surely that social benefit is worth saving?

Don’t take it that I’m trying to contradict you, I’m trying to amplify the points made.
Subsidising the arts isn’t solely about social benefit – in a global marketplace it is also part of global economics.

There is a benefit to having the industry of city of London coterie of financiers and high-flyers nearby, high art and the opera goes hand in hand with many of its functions as market-based reserve commodities which underpin the wider markets and financial security of our society. So support for the arts equates to a prudent financial measure, an investment alternative to armaments.

whenever I’ve been to Tate Modern or the Louvre I’ve seen almost only tourists who couldn’t tell you either the price or the value of any work on display. That so few tourists go to the regions doesn’t change the level of art appreciation in those cities, it is more a statement on the quality of work on display and an effect of the marketing ability of those institutions.

Both the Mona Lisa and the attention grabbing exhibitions at Bankside are nothing more than essential tourist traps, event theatre to tick off on the list of must-see excursions while in town, at least for the vast majority (I’m pretty sure Leonardo would have been philosophical while Duchamp laughed heartily at this).

Taken out of context and even stripping back their reputation and fame, there are aspects of good art in both places, but as they are presented my feeling was that they are diminished by their curation, like albums of classical and modern greatest hits.

The greatest spectacle at either place is the size of the crowds who are herding in and out with daily repetitiveness – and since when did sheep bleat on about either the cost or the taste of the grass they consume so long as they can continue to consume it?

15. Margin4 Error


I see what you are saying. Because other countries subsidise theatre and opera, we must do so to to compete for the attraction of financial institutions and other high value employers.

As a whole I’d assert such employers and their staff could meet that need through market forces – but you are right that they are unlikely to do so in London when other world cities don’t require them to.

“But if the arts weren’t subsidised, then they wouldn’t have the choice to attend even if they had the money and option.”

It’s not clear that that is true, otherwise there would be little theatre/music/opera and few art galleries/museums in the US, when of course they are thriving there just as here, though there as the result of the culture of private patronage and support – both large and small in scale.
Every artisitic venue in the US has a thriving patrons/friends scheme.
Here we sit around moaning about how little the Arts Council shells out, and then about how arbitrarily it does it, the conditions it demands and so on.

Mid range ticket price at the Met is around US$130, at the Royal Opera is UK£100, so no more expensive; in fact less so.

17. Margin4 Error

you do realise that patronage in the USA is massively subsidised by various tax rebates don’t you?

I accept the USA has a different way of doing it to us – but they subsidise the arts too.

Margin4Error – what I’m suggesting is the inverted perspective of your interpretation – art isn’t a necessary cost, art is a desirable benefit; art doesn’t compete in a zero-sum game, art explains, provokes and inspires further creativity; economics is measurement, art grows.

I had rather forgotten about this post, but since the debate is ongoing I will post a late response.
Firstly, you reply assumes that the only way the arts can be run is via state support. There is no particular reason why this should be so, and plenty of other way of running things from trusts to mutuals are perfectly workable.
The point isn’t just that they should have the ability to pay the entry fee of part subsidised art galleries and other works. They should be enabled to decide for themselves out of their own pocket if they want art to be funded. If they consider it of enough import of them to have their money, then it can.
If we aim for allowing the impoverished the same kind of economic and social freedom currently found amongst the middle class, then there is no reason why they could not do so. I don’t think they “should” be offered the option to go and see art, in some moralising sense- I think they should be able to decide if and what art they wish to see, as opposed to it being decided by middle class administrators.

As someone who lives in the regions, much of the art displayed here attracts little intrest because it is of little intrest. It is only by its percived worthiness by those with their hands on the exisiting beauacracy it continues on.
That which is of intrest is typically found somewhere outside the establishment, either in works such as the angel of the north or in more community based projects.

Yes thank you I realise that.
The same “tax rebates” for the arts apply here too you know – it’s called Gift Aid.
The difference – the key difference – is that individuals in the US direct the money according to their own tastes.
Not according to the tastes/political imperatives of a (sometimes corrupt – see Tate trustees) quango.
Strangely enough that has still given them the Met, Whitney and MOMA: at least as good as the National Gallery and Tates Britain and Modern.

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