arts out to help out?

Through agencies like Arts Council England and its equivalents in other countries, taxpayers in general pay to keep old-established opera companies, orchestras, theatres and galleries alive. Work produced with the benefit of subsidy is enjoyed by comparatively few, and the few are better off and better educated than average. Nice if you’re one of them (as it happens I am), but not an arrangement with any basis in fairness or in social solidarity.

The Covid-19 emergency gives government a precious opportunity to re-negotiate its subsidy contract with legacy arts providers. They need rescue, yes they deserve rescue – but on what terms?

“Eat out to help out” (EOTHO) points an intriguing way forward. It’s a voucher scheme essentially, subsidising pub, café and restaurant meal consumption on normally quiet days of the week. The more customers an EOTHO-registered business succeeds in attracting then the more subsidy it can draw down, up to a maximum of £10 per meal ordered (or 50% of the total cost of the meal, whichever is the lower). Expensive restaurants can register for the scheme – some Michelin-starred establishments apparently have – but people with the means and inclination to EOTHO in them get the same £10 per meal subsidy-discount as people eating anywhere else. I could imagine an arts equivalent to EOTHO subsidising opera, West End show and fringe theatre attendance in the same refreshingly egalitarian way.

Economists have been suggesting experiments with demand-side arts subsidy for decades: experiments like EOTHO. Their time may now have come – along with a £1.57 billion Covid-19 arts rescue and re-start package plenty big enough to pay for them. 


Andrew Pinnock 2020