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Open Letter to Maria Miller: I Agree With Your Fellow Tories, Let's Commodify Culture

26/04/2013 18:16 BST | Updated 26/06/2013 10:12 BST
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As a playwright, author and novelist, I've been involved with the arts practically all of my life; a good third of that time has been spent in the UK. As a dual-national, the other part of that being American, I know what you Conservatives mean: culture has to pay; show what it contributes to the nation. We're talking pounds and pence here. Not some esoteric notion about "cultural value".

You see, in the States, there is close to zilch state or national support for the arts. So if you want to make art, you pretty much have to go and get the money for yourself. If this method excludes most people, well hey: survival of the fittest!

In fact, when I tell people back in the States that I've just ended an eight year tenure as a board member of the British Museum (BM), four as deputy chair, in a span of time which will go down in history as 'The Neil MacGregor Era'; know what their first response is: "Hey, I didn't know you were rich."

Because back in the US, as you know, you don't sit on a board with the prestige of the BM unless you're rich. Mega-rich.

Make that mega, mucha rich.

And money is just the beginning. You have to have big money contacts. Your big money contacts have to have big money contacts. The Director has to spend a lot of her/his time doing what is known as 'schmoozing': cocktail parties; elite tours; 24-hour availability. Lots of baby-sitting Big People and their egos. That skill is way up there on the job description list...

Since none of us are paid to sit on a cultural board in this country as far as I know, how much do you think our time is worth, the time spent in committees, working with staff, donating cash, fundraising, worrying, worrying, worrying. Let's add that all up, too.

Let's do some local and regional GDP estimates: If an institution like the BM didn't exist, how would that Starbucks be doing across the road from it , the one usually packed? Does Mr. Osborne have jobs for the folks who wouldn't be working there if there was no BM? Can you ask him, please?

What about the trinket shop next to the Starbucks, that book shop around the corner; all of the hotels, the tour buses; Boris's use of the BM as one of his selling points for London; the schools who use the BM's programmes and experts for free as part of their teaching? How much is the BM's programmes in Africa and Asia, for example, worth to UK trade and general goodwill? What about the BM's relationship with regional and national museums around the UK, which help boost these museums' visitor numbers?

How much will it be worth to the UK when that glorious Viking ship arrives there in 2015, an event which will bust wide open everything we thought that we knew about the Vikings and Northern European history in general. I'd love to help you quantify all of this.

Ok, a top ticket to Covent Garden can be expensive. That's because top singers are like premium footballers. You've got to pay these people. They don't do charity. It is their pay cheque plus their care and comfort that is most of the price of the ticket. Like a Suarez, folks go to see the superstars perform. Human nature.

But how do you calculate the outreach the Opera House does, working in schools, or with the elderly?

Look at the West End. 90% of what happens there is created by people who were trained in the subsidized theatre sector. A lot of those people have families, elderly parents. They have to eat, and have a roof over their head, too.

Skyfall, which grossed a billion pounds, stars a guy who trained, courtesy of the British taxpayer. How much is his work worth?

The fact is, as you know, tourists don't flock to this great country to watch the footie, or eat in the restaurants. They come to visit the stately homes, for example. How much are all the volunteers who work in these places worth? Culture, one industry that is actually growing, has always punched above its weight. It is one of the key factors in making the UK the Number One nation in the world for the arts.

Actually, let's put down what UK GDP would look like if the tourists didn't show up. Or if they came in fewer numbers because they couldn't afford the proposed entrance fees; or there were no big stars singing on the opera stages; or there was no West End.

Ok, if you ask what's more important, a hospital or Hamlet, of course, there's no contest.

But if we're at that point, we're in bigger trouble than the government is telling us. Because as you know, and maybe the general public don't, the budget for the department for culture, media and sport, compared to other departments, is miniscule and getting smaller and smaller.

You say that you want to work with the arts community, that you're in our corner. I can see that because you and I are working on a cultural committee together. So please, secretary of state, go and give your Cabinet colleagues a heads-up. I'll be happy to help.