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‘‘What we can rely on is our creativity, our inspiration and our passion’’

In these turbulent times, arts and culture are crucial, not only to our well-being, but to economic

Amid the never-ending talk of credit crunch, downturn and recession, it is inevitable, say the doomsters and gloomsters, that there will be less money for the arts and culture. So the question then becomes: does it matter? Surely these are luxury items that we can do without when times are tough? As strongly as I can, I would argue no.

I believe in arts and culture and I believe that, far from being luxury items, they are a necessity in our lives, as individuals and as nations. Countries may go to war but it is culture that unites us: the words of a great writer, the style of a legendary dancer, the brilliance our favourite actors display in bringing life to their roles, a Mozart piano concerto, the endless mystery of Mona Lisa’s smile, the flickering images on celluloid and the countless stories they have told. Here in Shakespeare’s country, this should be understood more clearly perhaps than anywhere else in the world – that the arts inspire, uplift, challenge, stimulate our conversations, drive our debates and remain in our memories.

What I have come to recognise, in my six years of fundraising for the Old Vic theatre in London, is that those of us who make an argument for supporting the arts have not used the economic impact of arts and culture as the centrepiece of our appeals as much as we should. Too often we focus solely on the social aspects of what we can achieve, or the artistic merits. These are important and valid, but I believe we should change tack at this time. Instead of apologetically holding our hat in our hands, we should cite the economic successes of what is called show business. We can do better by recognising how much our cultural life contributes to the health of communities across our nation and, indeed, around the world. Those who enjoy culture should be more aware of the financial contribution arts institutions make to their communities.

Relationships between business and the arts offer a real chance to achieve financial success – not only for each other, but also to generate income for the hotels, restaurants and countless other businesses that populate the neighbourhoods where cultural centres operate. I for one do not want to see another regeneration plan that does not have arts and culture at the heart of its offer. Without it, we are not building rounded communities, but ignoring the fabric and soul of society.

It is also important that the arts remain high on the agenda of government. I was hugely encouraged to see that President Obama’s stimulus package included an additional $50m towards investment in the arts, despite efforts by some to remove that amount before the Senate was to vote on it. Even at a time when economic issues dominate, the president of the United States only needed to look at the successes we have achieved to conclude that culture should not suffer. But it is not going to be easy to maintain or increase the amount that government contributes. We are going to have to fight for it. We must learn to make the economic arguments that will sway even the most hardened opponents of support for the arts.
In addition, education through the arts enriches the next generation, not just of artists, but of our whole workforce. Theatre, for example, teaches young people to share, to commu­nicate, to resolve conflicts and to explore ideas. All of this is good for business because it contributes to interpersonal skills, which then translate into customer care. So it’s not charity or empty philanthropy, it is an investment in the future of our society.

If we lose more of the places where emerging talent can develop, where does a young person go to learn their craft? How does someone ever get to work on a West End stage if there is no longer a place to challenge and develop talent when young? If more theatres close in our provincial towns, if more of our cultural centres face a threatened economic future, if more of the smaller venues lose their funding – then the more our society will suffer. And if we don’t do what we can to stem this tide, we risk allowing our rich cultural life to lose its rightful place – or, even worse, fade from view, becoming reserved only for those who can afford to pay the big prices, in the big cities, for what has been too often in the past an exclusive club.

In these turbulent times, our concepts of what we value are being reconsidered. Banks may collapse, individuals might display unprecedented levels of greed and innocent people may become casualties. But what we can rely on is our creativity, our inspiration and our passion.

The creative industries lead the UK economy. They constitute one of the nation’s most powerful natural resources. We must do everything we can to ensure that our cultural heritage is protected – for we abandon the arts at our peril. Our arts and culture are the envy of the world and the jewel in Britain’s crown. Let’s shout louder to make sure those in positions of power and influence realise their value to our economy, as well as to our collective soul. The question is not “What can the economy do for our arts?” but “What can the arts do for our economy?” The answer: a good deal.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Campbell guest edit