Propping up the arts

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 November, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 November, 1997, 12:00am

Public funding for the arts is a topic guaranteed to trigger heated debate. Here in Hong Kong, where subsidies to the arts are amongst the highest in the world, news that taxpayers are underwriting performances by as much as 97 per cent is bound to cause some anger. But the decision to revue the present system came from the Arts Development Council (HKADC) itself, and, by commissioning the report, the council shows a willingness to submit to scrutiny and to make changes.

They are needed. The most striking fact to emerge from the confusing report is the labyrinthine way funding is administered. Some organisations involved complain that the auditors got their sums wrong, while the auditors found the system 'so confusing, it is difficult if not impossible to . . . ensure the overall effectiveness of the public spending.' As two councils and two arts bodies are involved, this is a valid point. Less administration and more accountability would be a first step.

Performance does not have to be measured on the size of the audience, but when concerts are regularly subsidised by $700 per seat, questions arise as to whether the money could be better spent.

Despite critics who insist that all entertainment should be self-financing, there is no serious argument against arts funding. The relentless diet of trash on television shows the level of fare on offer when commerce and profit set the tone. There is no other way to ensure that all schoolchildren are introduced to less populist forms of culture which stimulate thought and encourage them to look at the world through new eyes. It is a reflection of the SAR's values and sophistication that it funds the arts so generously. But there is a limit to how often taxpayers money can be spent on empty theatres.