Why Nicholas Hytner is wrong about how to save the arts in England

Curtain call of ‘La Gate Perduda’, a community opera I helped with at the Liceu Opera House, Barcelona, October 2022

One starting point for A Selfless Art is my recognition of how much participatory art and co-creation practice now imagines the world as being divided between us and them. Us, the people who know, who understand, who plan, those who organise, do, create and lead, whose work is important, valuable and, naturally, always for the greater good. Them, the people who don’t know or understand, those who struggle and need help, who are supposed to benefit from how things are organised, whose choices and actions are to be judged, whose work is valued only for the effort they demonstrate, those of whom there are few expectations (though sometimes considerable fears).

On one side, those who make decisions: on the other, those whose lives are affected by those decisions. Here, those who set the type and extent of public services; there, those who depend on those services daily. Artists involved in co-creation live in the borderlands between Us and Them. They understand both sides (more or less) and they can speak both languages. Where they really belong is a question each one knows the answer to. And I know that I’ve found myself on the wrong side—the side I stand against—too many times, hence A Selfless Art.

Yesterday, Nicholas Hytner published his ‘plan to save the arts in Britain’ in The Guardian, a plan that essentially involves dividing the arts world permanently into Us and Them.

He laments the funding cuts imposed on the arts by Conservative ministers since 2010, saying that he doesn’t know ‘a single subsidised arts organisation in the country that feels financially secure.’ He contrasts this with the doubling of arts funding under Labour between 1997 and 2007, which saw ‘a renaissance in regional theatre’ while ‘dance, opera and classical music all flourished’. His priorities (and tastes) are clear. An obvious solution to the crisis is a big increase in funding, which he does call for. Perhaps the next government, widely assumed to be Labour, will deliver it. 

But Nicholas Hytner has a bigger ambition. He says that the Arts Council, which distributes public funding for the arts in England, is pulled in too many directions, especially in supporting the work of great artists and community access to the arts. (Actually, the dual mission of supporting art and access to it has been in the Arts Council’s Charter since it was founded in 1946.) Hytner is attracted to the model of English sport, where UK Sport supports the elite ‘with no direct involvement in community or school sport’ while Sport England works to increase everyday participation.

He proposes that a Labour government should create a new body ‘with its own funding stream, to which new community-based initiatives as well as established education and outreach programmes can apply.’ Then the Arts Council can concentrate on financing the work of great professional artists, though how they might be identified or selected is not considered. Perhaps they all know each other already.

In practice, many cultural institutions already operate like this, with no meaningful contact between artistic direction and education and outreach departments.

None of this thinking is new. Indeed, it’s tiresomely familiar and predictable, as anyone with a bit of history or old enough to remember will know:

  • During the Second World War, when the British government first invested in the arts, its response was class-based. It created the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA) and the Entertainments National Service Association.After the war, ENSA was closed; no need for ‘entertainment’ now. CEMA became the new Arts Council of Great Britain.
  • In the 1950s, when the phrase austerity was first used to explain cuts, the newly-established Arts Council made the historic decision not to fund amateur art, under the principle of ‘Few, but roses’, the first of many horticultural (and Classical) metaphors that would define its future policy.
  • In the 1970s, the Arts Council first resisted community art, then briefly accepted that it had to support it, though many of its staff and panel members remained bitterly opposed. The problem was solved by ‘devolving’ responsibility to the independent Regional Arts Associations so that it could concentrate, just as Nicholas Hytner wants, on elite and traditional forms. 
  • In 1990, the Regional Arts Associations were formally linked to the Arts Council as Regional Arts Boards before being abolished in 2002: each step brought community and participatory art back to the centre where it still is—and where it still bothers some.

At the heart of this problem is the unshakeable belief held by many people in the arts that community work cannot really be artistically good, let alone aspire to the elite standards and transcendent experiences they believe professional artists achieve. They see a world divided between Us and Them—and everyone who thinks like that knows on which side of that line they belong.

Nicholas Hytner’s proposal is wrong politically, morally and artistically. It would be a backward step to the world of the 1950s and it would fail because we live in the 2020s.

Art is not binary, with good work produced by professionals and everything else second rate. It’s not even a spectrum. It’s a vast network, as large as humanity, of extraordinarily different and diverse creative expression and we are enriched by being able to explore it all as and how we wish. Art is one, humanity is one. Drawing borders in that interdependent network of life is simply to create sources of conflict.

And if you want an example of how artistic innovation can combine with community participation to co-create new and in many people’s view artistically exciting art, look at the three operas (including La Gate Perduda) presented at http://www.co-art.eu


  1. I think you’ve misconstrued his argument here. The Arts Council is plugging gaps in the education sector. Making arts education the primary goal of arts funding (as it currently is, under Let’s Create) is a very inefficient way of solving the problem. No one is trying to say that participatory or amateur art is worth less, it’s merely a question of specialisation. To take his sport analogy, all the major football clubs participate in grassroots sport and community work, but it is not their primary reason for being. Organisations that promote active lifestyles and amateur sport coexist happily with this.


    1. The creation of a whole new organisation to manage funding of community and education work would be an expensive and inefficient duplication. Whatever‘Let’s Create’ is (and it is confused) it doesn’t make education the purpose of arts funding, which currently goes mss add only where it has always gone – to professional artists. There’s a lot that needs to be improved in the current system, starting with levels of government support, but nothing in Nicholas Hytner’s plan would address those needs.


      1. That is a fair comment, and yes you’re right that ‘education’ isn’t the main purpose. I was using education as flippant shorthand for an agenda focused on participation, outreach and social outcomes. For example, the project grants from is c. 22,000 characters of which only 800 describes the artistic activity. NPO organisations have similarly had to justify their existence through their community work, which is why the last round of cuts was so particularly hurtful – many of those who lost out were doing some of the best work in this area. It’s public money, so there needs to be accountability, but this balance isn’t right some of the world-class arts organisations seeking the funding. Should we really only give funding to people seeking ‘new audiences’ or should we spend even a tiny bit of effort trying to grow and challenge our current audiences?

        I am sure you’re right that, of the money awarded, most goes to professional artists, but the projects and organisations awarded are not awarded on the basis of those artists’ merits. You’re also right that to some extent more money would solve the problem.


  2. I agree, Francois. I feel that Hytner may be simply vocalising a widely held position by those in with the innies. But I think that he might be at risk of shooting himself and other high profile organisations in the foot.

    It may be possible that the funding that goes to larger institutions for participation/ education/outreach can currently be quite easily be siphoned off into main house productions. The justification for that would be that ‘quality’ needs to be maintained – and putting money into main house productions means that the numbers of reduced price tickets that can be offered to communities can be increased. When organisations do that, there wouldn’t need to be a consideration as to whether the main house offer is in any way interesting or relevant to the communities who will then be offered the subsidised tickets – so those tickets may not be taken up anyway.

    Then it gets even more complicated because, when outreach teams are based entirely within in large organisations they would then still have to raise money for projects that take place in the community, raising funds from from trusts and foundations (some of which could also be used for the purchase of main-house tickets).

    As far as I can see, Hytner’s article misses that point entirely – high profile organisations wouldn’t be happy if the funding they can call upon from the requirement to work with communities is reduced in two different ways.

    So – I think there probably does need to be an adjustment to funding and accountability – just not in the same way that Hytner does.

    On another note, we met once at a Paul Hamlyn Foundation funding day.
    I’m one of the delivery team on a Masters programme for Teaching Artists/Arts Educators/Facilitators/Artists working with communities around the world. As part of the programme, students need to consider Social, Political, Economic and Cultural dimensions of issues at the forefront of their arts practice context. I’d love to catch up with about some potentials for linking up.

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  3. Mycelial soil, mycelial culture, mycelial art. The best of it is ‘of us’, any of us, all of us, not the special ones known to the powerful ones. Back to the ‘mycelial’, cut it with a spade and you kill it, what a surprise. Mr Hytner, catch up please at the back of the class. If Labour’s reading, you know what’s right. This funding divide idea is a trap and it will not work in the way proposed

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