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How Much Does British Culture Cost?

05/01/2014 16:18 GMT | Updated 05/03/2014 10:59 GMT

In a recent BBC radio interview, the actor and singer Michael Ball described how "...the ethic is so different between the commercial theatre and that kind of rarified, subsidised [theatre]". He cited that you can perform just three shows a week in subsidised show like London Road and eight shows a week for a commercial production like Legally Blonde.

So when considering cuts to arts subsidies in the UK, it can appear as though avant-garde artists don't work as hard; that they gobble up state resources that could go further elsewhere.

This plays into traditional conservative thinking about the arts - that a liberal intelligentsia run an inefficient and elitist club. Little wonder then, that the Tories cut arts subsidies by 30% in 2010, and a further 7% in 2013.

Alongside this has come another traditional Conservative move; a focus on reducing the welfare bill, and a willingness to vilify recipients.

But it hasn't been easy.

2012 saw a public backlash over the government's Workfare scheme - an initiative that shanghias jobseekers into voluntary work positions in high street stores like Tesco and Poundland.

The theory is that this work experience will give NEETs (standing for Not in Employment, Education or Training) a greater range of transferable skills and a better-looking CV.

But the reality is that the professional experience offered by Workfare does not actually help many NEETs get jobs - it's a placebo aimed at placating middle Englanders who see benefits recipients as scroungers.

So in a time of continuing cuts, how do you still manage to maintain a vibrant and dynamic arts scene, and not just Legally Blonde?

Signature Pictures is a London-based film production enterprise. Their #FutureFilm initiative suggested it was a good idea to offer Workfare volunteers roles on a short film. This way, the company would benefit from interns - the way nearly every production does anyway - and would produce a film that would give NEETs meaningful and constructive professional experience.

The result is a 15 minute short that is coming out this month, and which was - unlike the jobs at Tesco - massively over-subscribed by NEETs. The film crew has come directly from the Jobcentre's queue, and the plan is to roll out the scheme nationally.

This is a viable and sustainable way of developing artistic talent in the UK.

The arts-degree glut need not be a ticking time-bomb. Yes, there are more kids being poured out of media schools every year, and a British industry that cannot generate employment for all of them, but the country has the educational infrastructure to export talent globally for the next 50 years. Let's not forget that.

When Michael Ball talks about doing fewer shows, he's not actually suggesting that people in less commercial theatre don't care as much. He's making a statement about demand - if they could sell 8 performances of London Road a week, they would.

But avant-garde art is not designed to be popular. It is meant to challenge and interrogate the status quo. It irritates. It misinforms. It asks more of the viewer, and it does not apologise for doing so.

So the film premieres on the 13th January at the Institute of Contemporary Arts and I wish them the best of success. I also hope that the broadened horizons delivered by this kind of scheme will lead to more dynamic CVs, careers and workers.