Kevin Spacey talks about government art spending

When Hollywood actor, and London theatre renovator, Kevin Spacey offers to give a talk on government funding for the arts just a few days before the government is planning to make cuts to the said arts, it seems sensible to pay attention.

Last week, he gave that talk, hosted by the Spectator magazine – and I was gifted a couple of tickets to the event.

I wasn’t actually that sure what sort of event this was going to be, a debate, a speech, an “in conversation” or what? As it turned out it was a speech, which usually fills me with dread, but Mr Spacey is a surprisingly good public speaker.

You might think being a top actor means you would be a good public speaker, but my limited experience is that being an actor rarely makes you a good public speaker, and even rarer, a person who can write an interesting speech.

Memo to charities and campaign groups, check if the headline celeb who supports your issues is actually any good at public speaking before asking them to open your fundraising event!

As you might expect, he focused on the benefits the arts brings to the economy, and why government support should continue to support them through taxes. That’s an issue frankly that can be argued about depending on your political/economic point of view.

Also, an audience from The Spectator isn’t one you would normally describe as being on the left of the political sphere, so applause was loudest for venues getting off their arses and lobbying philanthropists for money, and somewhat more muted for suggestions that tax payers might pick up some of the bill.

He did talk about philanthropy and why it isn’t as strong in the UK as it is in the USA – which he put down in a fair bit to the rather odd tax situation we have in the UK for charitable donations.  With spooky timing, this week’s issue of The Economist looks at the same issue, and summed up some of the stupidity of the current system rather well.

However, for me the most interesting part was when he talked about using the theatre and plays as a form of education, and the importance that has in society and work.

Intrinsically, teaching people to be actors does not necessarily mean they go on to become actors, but it gives them very important skills in elocution and presentation. Learning to act can also give people a confidence they never knew they had, and he gave some good examples of where this has happened at the classes he runs.

Therefore, indirectly, acting – and some of “the arts” – offers a far greater benefit to the person than a simple certificate or exam in acting. It changes a person’s outlook and ability to interact with others.

This is the sort of thing that the government should support – although it might be argued that the cost should come from the education budget. I am less sure that really obscure contemporary dance or cutting edge modern art generates as strong a return on the investment though as it can be so niche that only committed artists would understand it, and the widespread public benefit is more limited.

Obviously, some will sit in their lofts and argue in irritating refined airs that they are Artists, and they shouldn’t have to justify their work. Well, if you are subsidised by the tax payer, then yes, you should.

I think Kevin Spacey did a good job of arguing his case, and as you might expect, he is a good advocate for Theatre in general, and explained how the Old Vic does a fair bit to try an encourage the younger people to visit by offering cheaper tickets – critically, in the good seats – and even cheaper tickets to local residents.

As a middle-aged person I seem to be left out of much of the munificence that many such venues offer, but I am busy enough with my science/history/politics stuff as it is.

He didn’t mention it, but as a sideline, it is an area of interest for me, and one that has me grinding teeth in annoyance whenever it appears in the news media – and that is on of prisoners putting on plays.

Every few years, one of the rent-a-rant tabloids (usually the Daily Mail) will scream about prisoners being allowed to perform plays in the prisons, or even (gasp, horror) in the local community.

They rant about risk, and waste of money etc – as if putting on a play is a hugely costly affair for a prison, and often ask if it is even useful to teach prisoners to become actors, due to the difficulty of making a living from such a career.

The thing is, as Mr Spacey mentioned for his students,  such tabloid rants totally overlook the point of letting prisoners put on plays – it isn’t about teaching them to act – it is about developing their social skills and giving them the ability to express themselves in a confident manner.

An ex-prisoner going for a job interview already has a hard enough task in front of them, without being burdened by social skills that limit them to mumbling and looking at their shoes throughout the interview.

This is not liberal hand-wringing, but plain economic common-sense. It is cheaper to have an ex-prisoner working in a job than it is to have them unemployed, and likely as not, later back in an expensive jail.

So, even if you are dubious about the arts council grant to a provincial theatre, you should be supportive of arts grants to prisons. The return on investment is huge.

Incidentally, the Old Vic doesn’t get any government subsidy at all – although having a huge Hollywood actor as your artistic director does help a bit when fund raising!

An interesting talk, and enlivened by one questioner from the floor who was obviously totally star-struck and could barely ask her question.

Rather aptly, the very following evening, I attended the Hell’s Half Acre art event organised by the Old Vic’s sister venue in the tunnels under Waterloo Station.

Two days, and two events featuring not just arty things, but also the same theatre. I bet you wouldn’t have expected that from me!

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1 Comment

  1. Ian

    Interesting responses – considering that your excellent website does more than most to encourage attendance at arts events throughout London you try here to promote a fairly narrow view of the arts. It is true that there is a great deal of misunderstanding about arts funding and the role of the arts in society, mostly the fault of almost anyone ‘ranting’, often in the ‘popular’ press.

    Why not be generous and admit that the arts deserve funding, whether or not YOU think IT is art – and go along to learn. As someone who has spent a lifetime working in the arts, both subsidised and commercial, I love going along to the events you report on, the ‘science/history/politics stuff’ and I learn something every time. Join me.

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