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Sir John Tusa: State of Support for the Arts


Bio: Sir John Tusa is a British arts administrator, author, and radio and television journalist. From 1986 to 1993 he was managing director of the BBC World Service. From 1995 to 2007 he was managing director of the City of London's Barbican Arts Centre. Today Sir John consults professional organizations and continues his writing and speaking on arts support and management.

Q: Sir John, how have social attitudes toward the arts changed since the 1950's and 60's?

T: Of course the knee jerk reaction is to say why fund the arts? The fact of the matter is that the arts are far more funded in the UK and Europe and supported in the US by a rather different model on a much broader basis. The number of people who attend museums, galleries, concerts, theaters etc. is much bigger than it was fifty to sixty years ago. That incidentally is the timetable we need to look at. Because sixty years ago we’d only just created the Arts Council, which is the national body for public funding for the arts. The difference between the sums of money available and the number of organizations that were suitable for funding is absolutely enormous.

Forty million people a year go to museums in Britain. I’m sure the number is proportionately higher in the US. Although politicians tend to say “my constituents don’t understand why we’re spending money on the arts when we can spend it on hospitals”, I think that is going through the motions that if people did not have a gallery, a museum, a concert hall, a theater or whatever it might be in their major cities, and in minor ones too, they’d be very impoverished socially. So the debate about funding the arts will never go away. But many more people understand now why the arts are funded and why they are worth funding than they were 60 years ago today.

Q: This raises the point author Norman Lebrecht made on the increaesing expense of attending live concerts. Norman illustrated in his book, “Who Killed Classical Music?”, that costs have gone up, causing difficulty for the average person to experience great Opera or chamber music concerts. Is this a liability to the mission of the arts to reach the public?

T: It can be but there’s a huge range of prices. The major opera houses in London are very open about charging the top price they can for the stalls and circles but much cheaper prices in the upper reaches where incidentally the sound and the sightlines are very good. They have gotten cleverer at pricing. People could always say why should you have to pay 250 pounds or $350 to hear, say, Angela Gheorghiu at the Royal Opera House. The answer is because people who pay it can afford it. But you don’t have to. You can pay much less.

So long as the number of seats that are affordable is a reasonable amount - say fifty percent of the house has reasonable prices. Everyone is much better at pricing things. If you go to a rock concert or a big venue with an international musical superstar you’ll be paying more than what opera lovers are paying. Or a season ticket to our national sports association football…it will set you back hundreds of pounds. People are aware that not just the arts can be expensive; almost all activities that offer you international quality are as expensive as the arts. So I don’t regard that as a major issue. Most of our museums and galleries are, thank the lord, free.

Q: How did performing arts/nonprofit organizations in the past measure their own success and their ability to have an impact versus today?

T: Thirty to forty years ago, so long as you sold enough seats, and so long as you weren’t running deficits every year, and the critical and audience reaction was supported, or favorable, that was probably the long and the short of measuring impact. We’ve come an enormous way in being aware of audience reach and being far more businesslike in the way we run our organizations. It was only about 15 to 20 years ago that when it was first suggested that arts organizations needed to be practical and businesslike about the way they ran their money. A lot of people in the arts said “we’re not businesses”. To which the answer is, yes we’re not businesses, but we have to be business like. Being businesslike is a condition of continuing to receive public funding.

Everyone is much more professional…the way venues, galleries etc. are run have to be business like. We’re not going to throw money away. Public funding from government and private funding.  In the last twenty years everyone has become much more professional and much more aware of the need to price properly. Just being cheap isn’t the only thing you need to be. Better with corporate giving, commercial income. More aware of relationship with audience. I stay away from the word impact because it’s slippery ground. The arts need to be excellent. But you can’t say they make people, society, or the environment better…it’s not a guaranteed impact. It’s not something that should be built in as a hard part of how you judge what the arts do.

Q: What opportunities to invest in bringing performing arts into the public education system were missed in the past? This seems to be an area professional arts organizations are spending time on to make up for.

T: I think that while it is very good for arts organizations of all kinds to have educational outreach programs - going into schools and doing wonderful work -the truth is it doesn’t in any way act as a substitute or replacement for having a proper place for arts education in the normal educational curriculum. There’s a question of volume. How many children in the education system can be touched at any one time by outreach from a gallery or a concert hall or theater?

It’s very appreciating that schools that have outreach programs like them and speak highly of the effect they have. But there must be many more children who don’t have access to that. The only way to teach arts in school is if it’s part of the core curriculum. Mrs. Thatcher, when she was prime minister, destroyed a wonderful system that existed in the UK for many years. Music teachers went around from school to school teaching instruments. An enormous number of children learned instruments through this system, but Thatcher severely reduced it. Ever since people have been trying to recreate it. But whatever new method is tried, it will be less effective as when it was universally available and instruments were made available to play on, etc.

Q: What is the origin of the concept that it’s not an issue to cut back the arts?

T: It was part of the government philosophy on schools. Education was narrowly defined by the harder disciplines like science and math. The conservative party today still regard the arts as having marginal benefits to society. It’s always been lurking there – a general undervaluing of the place of arts in society. It’s been there for a very long time, and it erupts from time to time. The arts have to avidly fight back.

Q: Norman Lebrecht has advocated performing arts organizations having strong representation during government budget sessions. Do you believe this is needed more now than ever before?

T: Yes. One thing that the arts in Britain learned over the last ten years is if that if you don’t speak up for the arts nobody else is going to. You have to address all those charges about the marginality of the arts, their irrelevance or their utility. And you have to say that’s not true and this is why. Not that that prevented the current quite severe round of cuts from taking place. Those cuts took place not because the arts didn’t speak up, but rather because the economic environment was so severe. It’s hard to make the arts a special case. That’s about the value of the arts. It’s a condition of life. The arts are much better at speaking up now.

Q: Do you see a downside to the popular trend of corporate and private sector entities supporting only children’s programs for performing arts?

T: Yes, it’s a very dangerous trend. Who can possibly be against concerts for children? Nobody.  But that’s not the point. If the funders start tying funds to objects which are too specific, then that is very slippery ground as a basis for which people ideally should support the arts. It ties the hands of the arts organizations. The arts organizations have a better view of who their audience is, and where the need lies. They should be allowed to make their judgments about which particular groups have special needs and therefore should have special concerts.  Just as they’re expected to make decisions about programs as a whole.

Tied, hypothecated programming of this kind, while it looks wonderful when attached to children…the principle is a dangerous one. The arts organizations are better determiners of where the money should go, where the effort should go, that even the best intentioned of corporate donors. It gives a terrific warm glow - ”we help disadvantaged children” - but at its most extreme, if most funding went to good causes there wouldn’t be enough funding for the basic core activity without which the special programming could take place. I would issue a red light warning that it solves any problems. It doesn’t. It creates them.

Q: Is the danger you describe that such giving is done for good PR or press when such support could be better applied to support the musical arts?

T: Yes, that is undoubtedly the danger. If it were driven by the PR needs of individuals or corporations, then this is rather unattractive and likely to be counterproductive. In an ideal world (which we don’t live in) you should do something because you really believe in it, not “Look at me I’m really wonderful, look at the money I’ve generously given.”  But if it goes too far in the other direction where you only give for a PR benefit then that’s a very corrupted world.

Q: Regarding the plight of working musicians, an article that came out that describes musicians complaints that orginizations are guilting them into free performances. The perception is “you’re here to play, it’s not too much trouble”. What can musicians as collective organizations or as individuals do to stand up for rights?

T: In the UK the musicians union is very powerful. The musicians as a group are very solid. They’re very wary of being guilted into doing free performances.  I’m constantly appalled by how little musicians are paid. You see these musicians running in quartets and the amount of money they get paid is frighteningly low. This is completely unacceptable. Yes concert halls have problems with funding, but you can’t solve it by making the people who create the quality on their stage play for free and grind them down. It’s the wrong approach to a difficult question. It’s this instinct to grind wages down, I sound like a Marxist, but they make musicians the cause of the trouble when they’re not…here are many other causes. It will be hard.

Musicians must not be bullied into it, but that is easier to say than to do. The venues should say what is the nature of our problem, and will we really solve it by squeezing the not very well paid musicians even more? It doesn’t solve the problem and can very well  make it worse.

Q: In a personal conversation, a middle school music teacher was asked about the recent downgrade in the economy, to which he responded: “Musicians will always play and will always perform so I’m not concerned”. This statement reflects the general public perception that even in hard times the musical arts will flourish, musicians won’t stop playing, they’re inspired and they love to play. Is this not a dangerous attitude given to the musical arts?

T: I think it’s very dangerous, unattractive, complacent and untrue, and will drive many out of profession altogether. It’s simply not true if you’re a musician that you will play at any place and at any price. You’re downgrading quality. But what’s quality? It’s such an inadequate response; I won’t bother with that argument. Musicians play because they’re inspired. That’s true. But they’re workers. They’re elevated. You wouldn’t say to any other worker, “you enjoy your work so much why don’t you do it for free the whole time”.  If the general status of the music profession in the US is dangerously low and threatened that’s very sad.

Q: Author and Juilliard professor David Dubal at Julliard feels the greatest problem today is that people’s attention span is so consumed with technology that it is depriving of us of the ability to even think and concentrate. Is our saturated environment the greatest challenge to arts organizations achieving their mission?

T: Yes and no. The situation he describes - and everyone saying it’s the end of the world as we know it and the end of appreciation as we know it - something inside me hopes that it’s not quite that terminal. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. There’s always dialectic. It may take a long time for the dialect reaction to shed itself, but the reaction will lead to discovery of all the things through the welter of digital noise. If peeps didn’t continue to go to museums, concerts, festivals, cinemas in such high numbers I’d be much more worried. This may be hideously complacent but I’m not prepared to hoist a surrender flag. Not because the situation he describes is wrong or inaccurate but because I can’t believe that there would be a beneficial reaction to it.

Q: What setbacks and potential opportunities do you see in the global downgrade of funding support of arts organizations?

T: We just don’t know. The Bank of England said that this is the worst financial crisis since the 1930’s. If that is the case everything gets rewritten, and corporate support for the arts is only a minor detail in that entirely new scenario. We’re not there yet, there will be a pinch. In the case of mix funding economies in UK, we used to say 1/3 ….public funding/box office/corporate and private/….  corporate and private  proportionately slightly less. There is more flexibility in the funding pattern that we have than there was. That gives us some room for maneuver. I’m not optimistic but I refuse to say it’s the end of funding and corporate giving as we know it. There will be an awkward 5 years, maybe worse than that, but if cataclysm will come, it will come in world of finances first, and I don’t know if anyone knows when or if that’s going to happen.

Q: What are benefits and challenges to both the US and UK models of arts support?

T: The advantage of the British model is that u have…where you can find your money. Much more flexibility. There’s an opportunity to raise money in whatever three areas seem most likely. It’s a flexible model. Also, it's a much more tangible model. If you’re working at the box office, as far as getting most money is concerned, and keeping prices affordable, you’re very close to your audience as you should be. In the commercial area as well. People need to think harder about how they run their organizations. There’s many more options. When one of the three legs of tripod is threatened you strike the other two. If you only have two legs to begin with and one goes down you’re Much less balanced.

It should be a social democratic model. But being closer to the audience is very important. We also believe the state should give money and public support. Government should pay in part for the arts. We’re increasingly comfortable with it. Nobody I know thinks the American model will come over to UK. It’s not deliverable.  I have a friend who runs an arts organization where 20% of their funding comes from government funding, but some more bullish board members say let’s tell government to go to hell because we can easily raise that. He thinks it’s too risky and he thinks it’s wrong. He wants to have the tripod to work with. That will always be a big difference with the US.

Q: On what basis do you say corporate and government arts support is absolutely necessary to have a better society?

T: On the basis of experience.  When you ask people about living in their communities which have an arts culture, they register quite high levels about how it affects what they think about their community and how they feel. The Instrumental argument, which can be dramatic, is if you build a museum somewhere, it then lifts the whole reputation of that community… people wanting to live there, house prices etc… The other day I heard a quote from a young arts leader. He said, “Without the arts and culture we are only survivors”. So in any community without an artistic cultural ingredient in it, what are people doing? They’re just hanging on the life raft. That’s a slightly overly colored way of putting it. People enjoy the arts, they use the arts, it does makes a diff and you can tell when you go to communities that have arts elements in it or not.

Q: That’s exactly what professor David Dubal said: “Are we just surviving as humans or are we really living?” You served as managing director of London's Barbican Arts Centre for 12 years. What are your current activities?

T: I’m the chairman of the University of the Arts London, which is probably the largest arts/design/ fashion university in Europe, and I’m the chairman of the Board of Governors. I’m Also chairman of the CORE leadership program which helps 25 fellows take the next step toward arts leadership. We don’t teach, we give them intense opportunity for learning. I’ve been doing that for three years now.

Q: How do you spend your free time being involved with the arts?

T: My wife and I go to a lot of chamber music at the Wigmore Hall, which I chaired for ten years, and we go to a lot of art galleries. We keep on saying we’re going to catch up with the movies, but it may be that it’s too late to catch up for all sorts of complicated reasons, but when we see a good one we really enjoy it. And looking at architecture takes up as much time as we can give. It’s certainly a major interest.

Q: Anyone involved with the arts appreciates that it’s all time well spent.  The arts give back all that one gives it.

T: If one person reads or listens and says, “yes that’s what I want to do”, that’s a victory isn’t it?

That’s why we’re all involved with this field. It comes from a genuine place.

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