Let the play go on – we’re all in it together!

Two actors with comic chef hats eat a cake - one delicately, and one with her tongue
The arts are a rich feast – delivering social rewards way beyond generating financial income.
Photo credit: Spun Glass Theatre

I wanted to break away from the tedium of the counting house, take a risk, go wild … so I applied to become a VAT inspector. The application form was long and tedious – lots of difficult questions like ‘what is your name, address, date of birth and educational qualifications? At the interview they said: “You will be presented with a scenario and be asked to comment on it and to reach a conclusion before 12 minutes, then the interview will conclude.”

I had £10m to spend, either on a childrens centre in a deprived city area, or on a small painting by a famous British artist. The funds could not be split. There was no right or wrong answer. Discuss. I decided on the painting. 

That evening, after the interview, I sat in the Victoria Tavern with my dog at my feet and mulled over the pros and cons of each option. Finally, I gave the dog the casting vote: one wag for the centre, two for the painting. She wagged her tail twice. I had made the right decision! Perhaps more government departments should employ dogs to assist in their allocation of scarce resources. 

But what about that children’s centre? Might it not have offered opportunities for self-expression in a community otherwise lacking artistic outlets?

A song and dance routine

Years later, I thought about the performing arts, the ones which involve groups of people. My own efforts as an amateur thespian had built my confidence and got me out of the house. I had even learnt to do the sort of song and dance routines that involved throwing my partner over my shoulder. 

It gave me a purpose in life. It was fun. It did not only work for me, it also works for hundreds of thousands of other people from all walks of life.

Hey, what about the audience? It may at times be put off by the shouting and fierce drumbeats of some productions. But there is a place for that, and directors should be able to take risks and innovate.

Which brings me to the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) – the very name of which makes it sound like a real fun organisation to work for. It says its job is to “help drive growth, enrich lives and promote Britain abroad”. As well as supporting the activities outlined in the title, it could be argued it also plays a role in education, health and social care. 

Sporty, cultural and techie

Sport promotes physical fitness; culture and media assists mental wellbeing, creativity and innovation. Digital? That is the new kid on the block and equally important: it is the way technology shapes the way we behave, think and communicate with others. The department funds a huge list of activities and physical structures. 

Until lockdown, it never occurred to me how economically important this ‘culture department is – and not only for self-employed actors, musicians, theatre technicians and support staff. There are also benefits for the hospitality industry, who depend on those audiences visiting them on evenings out. Governments also gain from the export revenue generated by successful artists. These artists usually get their first step on the ladder in small venues. 

In fact, it is impossible to put a figure on this particular economy and how much, in financial jargon, its ‘return on capital employed’ delivers.

The department has allocated £1.57bn as a recovery fund this year, with a further £860m from the National Lottery. To put this in perspective, pre-Covid, the allocated spend for all government departments was some £331bn. Still a fair amount of dosh.

And tax relief too…

Until Covid, many businesses used to be generous supporters of the arts, but quite understandably, these budgets are now on hold. 

You might say “It’s not the money, but how you spend it.” I believe the DCMS really does try to spend fairly and sensibly. A good example is theatre tax relief, where generous tax allowances, as well as cash, are granted to the performing arts for research and development. 

Their contribution is therefore, all in all, pretty impressive. And they did it without the help of my dog.

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Rod Watson is a VAT and customs duty expert. He is also the financial director of Spun Glass Theatre, a Sussex-based award-winning production company.

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