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The Guardian view on the false alternatives of arts funding: we need bread but also roses

<span>Ian McKellen at the Birmingham Rep. ‘This is not just about the talented few who got their break through the arts, but about the many to whom they have gone on to give pleasure’.</span><span>Photograph: Mirrorpix/Getty Images</span>
Ian McKellen at the Birmingham Rep. ‘This is not just about the talented few who got their break through the arts, but about the many to whom they have gone on to give pleasure’.Photograph: Mirrorpix/Getty Images

How do you put a value on culture? In this age of austerity, a political, philosophical question is too easily reduced to painful choices. Would you prefer a roof over your head, or a tune in your heart? Lorries to collect the rubbish from your streets, or a well-stocked library? It’s a decision nobody in a civilised society should be forced to make, yet these very alternatives are starkly posed in an ongoing public consultation by Hampshire county council. Only a fool would dismiss the questionnaire as political posturing – there are undoubtedly tough choices to be made – but neither should anyone be fooled into believing that social priorities can be reduced to a tick-box exercise.

A crisis of public services that has been brewing for the past 14 years spilled over this week with the publication of a draft budget from the authority charged with running the UK’s second city, Birmingham, that shockingly proposed the withdrawal of all funding, as of next year, from a range of cultural institutions that should be cherished as intrinsic to the self-respect of any 21st-century metropolis. The only remotely positive thing that can be said about the situation is that there’s no room for squabbling over crumbs, as so often happens. The pain is shared equally, with no discrimination between different disciplines, or high and low culture: art, opera, orchestral and other music, ballet and theatre are all for the chop.

Most of the affected institutions have already been struggling with reduced or standstill budgets from their other paymaster, Arts Council England (ACE). But ACE’s grant-in-aid budget is £467m a year, plus around £250m from the National Lottery, a total that is dwarfed by the £1.17bn that – even after a 44% real terms reduction over the past decade – was spent by English councils on culture, heritage and library services in 2022-23. And Birmingham is not alone in threatening to shred its arts offering: from Bristol to Nottingham, Hampshire to Suffolk, curtains are on the point of falling. In January, Suffolk county council announced that it would cut 100% of its arts budget – though a temporary, partial reprieve has since been granted.

In the centenary year of the Birmingham Rep – one of the 10 institutions on the city’s red list – a chorus of household names, from Kenneth Branagh to Toyah Willcox, Ian McKellen to Timothy Dalton, lined up to hymn its role in helping to kickstart their careers. This is not just about the talented few who got their break through the arts, but about the many to whom they have gone on to give pleasure, food for thought, and an inspirational example, whether they are growing up in Wigan like McKellen, or Belfast like Branagh.

There will always be those who argue that the arts are a luxury only available to societies with a surplus – one the UK no longer has. At the local level, in many areas, this may be appear to be incontrovertible. But such reductionism should be fiercely resisted. In 1911, a poem was published in an American magazine. Titled Bread and Roses, it was co-opted by textile workers in Massachusetts in a strike that united immigrant communities and was largely led by women. It’s not a sophisticated piece of verse, but it deployed the couplet brilliantly to make a crucial point: “Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes / Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread but give us roses”. We would do well to remember that slogan today.