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The Green Room: Is arts funding being spent on the right things?

Originally produced in London, the National Theatre’s War Horse is currently touring the UK. Photo: Brinkhoff and Mogenburg

Meet our panel: We have given our panellists pen-names and used stock images but their biographies reflect their real career details…

John Pepper is 31 and has worked as an actor in regional theatres, the National Theatre and in radio, television and film.

Adam Lovett is a 45-year-old actor who has appeared in Oscar-winning films and in theatre at the RSC, National Theatre and in the West End

Jenny Talbot, 39, has nearly 20 years of experience in West End and touring musical theatre with occasional forays into TV, film and plays

Eoghan Barry, is 30. He has worked professionally as an actor on fringe projects, with young people and as a writer

Beryl Phoenix is in her 40s. She has played leading roles at the RSC, worked on new plays, and toured both nationally and internationally


Jenny I’d like to think any money spent on arts is a good thing, but there’s just not enough of it.

Eoghan I think that arts funding applications can become far too much like box-ticking. Companies are trying to present what they think the Arts Council wants – and some people are just better at it than others.

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Adam To my absolute shame, I have no idea of the breakdown of where arts funding goes.

Beryl I feel that more funding needs to be given to the regions – supporting regional theatres and, really importantly, supporting their relationships with their local communities. Outreach work and youth theatre participation, for example.

Jenny I know that cuts have meant the end of funding to my old county youth theatre and it has had to disband. It’s really sad.

Beryl In areas that have less access to the arts, the disappearance of theatre in education is a huge shame. In the 1970s and 1980s there was amazing work going around schools, teaching children about apartheid, hardship and social cohesion. I don’t feel its presence anywhere near as much now.

John There’s been an interesting discussion in Scotland about this recently. Creative Scotland essentially cut a load of funding to a bunch of really great companies. Brilliantly, the industry in Scotland went nuts and they gave most of the money back.

Jenny It’s amazing that the industry in Scotland kicked off like that – and it’s great that they were listened to. They tried that in Wales, but they were ignored. A lot of funding goes to Welsh-language projects in Wales, which is great – although some people think it’s disproportionate.

Adam The theme when this has come up during my career has been a regions-versus-London debate, and smaller companies versus big theatres.

Eoghan The fact that some high-profile directors can seem to apply for a grant at short notice and get it, without the basis for it that everyone else has to provide, is a bit off.

John It must be a nightmare for the people whose job it is to share out the tiny scraps of cash for the arts. Someone, somewhere doing brilliant, important work will be let down.

Beryl Working-class communities need to be given a platform, community and youth groups need to spring up, and drama students from poorer backgrounds need to be helped with funding. I could go on.

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Eoghan There is also something jarring about arts organisations that have a staff of a hundred before you get to any creatives.

Adam And then there’s the whole issue of buildings versus people that first came up when Lottery funding was introduced: the money could be used to build shiny new theatres but not to fund operational budgets. I’m not sure if that is still the case.

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JonPart of the reason that London funding is so disproportionate, of course, is that the really huge organisations and buildings – such as the Southbank Centre, the National Theatre and the Royal Opera House – are all in London.

Adam Maybe we should ask whether large, London-based buildings and companies are doing enough to justify their ‘national’ titles and funding, by touring and taking other programmes and initiatives to the regions.

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Jenny National Theatre Wales does a very good job of that. It has no base.

JonThe National Theatre of Scotland is similar – it doesn’t have a home theatre as such and tours pretty much every show. In fairness, we should also mention that the NT has toured The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, War Horse, My Country, Jane Eyre and Hedda Gabler in the past year.

Adam That’s a fair point. And I think it’s going to tour the Scottish play this year too.

Jenny There’s a lot more access to productions than there used to be, which is a good thing. Growing up outside London, I saw very little theatre that had originated there.

JonOf course certain political elements, especially on the right, would say that the arts should be almost exclusively privately funded, as they are in the US. Do we have any thoughts on that?

John No. Art is for everyone. As soon as it becomes privately funded, it becomes almost exclusively for the rich. It almost is already, to be honest.

Jenny You get what happened at the Public Theater’s production of Julius Caesar in New York last year, when sponsors were pressured to remove their funding because of the show’s political stance.

JonOr the situation at the Metropolitan Opera where an experimental production of Tosca was replaced with a more traditional one at the request of the donors.

John What’s the average ticket price on Broadway at the moment?

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JonI believe the average price went past $100 a couple of years ago [It is now $109].

Adam This discussion makes me realise how far away from the headlines arts funding has moved in recent years. I remember we talked about it constantly under Margaret Thatcher and her successors.

John I suppose it is always going to struggle for headlines compared with the NHS and things like that.

Jenny If only they gave money to the NHS as well, but they’re not.

Jon We’re always quoting the line about how every pound spent brings so much into the exchequer: maybe we should be more vocal about the non-economic benefits of arts funding too.

Read in-depth analysis of arts funding data by expert David Brownlee

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