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Debate: Abolition of art subsidies

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Should government subsidy of the arts be ended?

Background and content

This is a reliably good issue for debate; although the particular circumstances of government funding for the arts will vary from country to country and should be researched carefully, the principles remain universal. The Proposition should take care to define what is meant by the arts – does it include museums and galleries as well as theatre, music and film? Forms of subsidy can also vary and may include, for example, funding via a state lottery as well as direct grants from the national treasury.

Survival: Many of the arts would not survive without subsidies?


  • People will pay for good art; subsidies are unnecessary. Government subsidy of the arts is unnecessary as if art is good enough, then people will pay for it. If art is not good enough to be popular, then government should not reward it for its failure. The success of the unsubsidised popular music industry in Britain contrasts with the failure of the subsidised British film industry. Why should London have five symphony orchestras if there is not enough demand to justify them? The arts in the US are largely unsubsidised and they are thriving and popular.
  • The arts can survive on profits and business models alone There are alternatives to government subsidy or relying solely on ticket sales to fund the arts. The patronage of rich enthusiasts is still a very important force in the art world, as it was in Shakespeare’s or Mozart’s day. Companies are often keen to sponsor the arts as it gives them an opportunity to associate their brand with creativity, generosity and excellence. The USA offers generous tax breaks to individuals and companies to support the arts and has developed a culture of personal philanthropy which is very different to that of subsidy-dependent Europe.


  • Without subsidy, many of the arts would not survive Local theatres would be forced to shut, film industries would shrink, national theatre, opera and ballet companies would disband or merge, museums would close their doors. Although some people will value the arts highly enough to pay a market rate for them, they are too few to maintain a diverse and extensive artistic sector which can improve the quality of life for all. In addition, exposing the arts to the full winds of the economic cycle means that skills and institutions lost during recessions can never be reestablished successfully when business improves - art is not a commodity.
  • Subsidies help foster newer more innovative forms of art. Commercially-funded arts have to play to the lowest common denominator, avoiding risk by providing what has proved popular and successful in the past (for example, musicals and endless productions of Shakespeare’s As You Like It or Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite). Subsidised companies can afford to take more risks and to experiment, enabling new styles and forms of art to emerge and to become popular in their own right.

Economics: Do economics favor art subsidies overall?


  • Government subsidies will be inefficiently wasted on "artsy" flops. Even if government subsidy of the arts occasionally produced popular and acclaimed artistic successes, these will always be too infrequent to justify wasting public money on a great many more flops. Just as governments have proved to be very poor at centrally-directed economic planning, they are unlikely to be any better at centrally-directed artistic planning. Instead, they are more likely to channel resources inefficiently, stifling more creative and potentially popular endeavours elsewhere. And remember, money wasted on the arts is money that could be spent on schools, pensions and hospitals.


  • There are considerable economic benefits to subsidising the arts. Government-backed companies such as the National Theatre or Royal Shakespeare Company in Britain act as centres of excellence, training and nurturing young talent and thus helping to support a thriving commercial artistic sector as well. The arts can be an important attraction for tourists, bringing considerable revenue into the country.

Elite culture: Do subsidies benefit mostly the wealthy and elite?


  • Arts subsidies benefit mostly the wealthy and elite Government arts funding often subsidises the favourite leisure pursuits of the elite who staff the government, such as opera and ballet. Why are these more worthy of subsidy than pop concerts or football matches? It is a peculiarly regressive form of government to take money from the poor in taxes to spend on the playthings of the rich.


  • Subsidized art will be available to all classes. So-called "elite culture" should be available for all to enjoy, and not just confined to the rich. Opera and ballet might survive without government subsidy because enough rich people enjoy them, but they will do so by putting their ticket prices up beyond the pocket of any ordinary person. Subsidy can ensure that cheaper tickets are available and that the arts remain democratically open to all, regardless of income or social class.

Interference: Is government interference justified? What are the risks in it?


  • Subsidies always carry a danger of interference and distortion in art. If artists and companies become dependent upon funding, they will react to the implicit threat of its removal should they be too critical of the government. Government may seek to co-opt art into serving its wider policy aims, making it promote nationalism, moral behaviour or a cult of personality; this compromises artistic integrity and forces art to become nothing more than propaganda.


Education: Are subsidies important for stimulating arts in education?



  • Free and cheap access to the arts is crucial for education. Without subsidy schools and young people would not be able to take affordable music lessons, visit museums or galleries, or to attend plays or concerts, and would thereby be prevented from understanding and enjoying their culture fully. As well as being important for personal enrichment, access to the arts also makes the young aware of their national heritage and helps to promote feelings of nationhood.

Pro/con resources




This article is based on a Debatabase entry written by Alastair Endersby. Because this document can be modified by any registered user of this site, its contents should be cited with care.


  • This House would end government subsidy of the arts
  • This House believes the arts should pay their own way

In legislation, policy, and elsewhere:

See also

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