If we can take our minds off money for a moment, it seems the SAR may be approaching a watershed in its attitudes to, and arrangements for, the arts. Two weeks ago Brian Chau Tak-hay, the relevant official, complained he actually had very little control over what local artists got up to. Some of us might consider this a rather splendid state of affairs. But there are always those masochists who crave the smack of firm government. As he no doubt intended, Mr Chau's complaint produced some discussion about the merits of removing large quantities of money from the municipal council's arts budgets and placing it in the tender care of the central government. Meanwhile the Government demonstrated its concern and care for the arts by stumping up $2 million for an example of that rarest of cultural artefacts, a consultant's report on arts funding. This study disclosed that the SAR was surprisingly generous. At $288, per capita spending was second only to that of the Germans, who for another $23 a head get more opera houses than you can shake a stick at. The report also demonstrated the sensitivity and versatility of accountants, or at least of those employed by Coopers & Lybrand, by making detailed recommendations about what sort of item the Arts Development Council should be stumping up its money for. The analysts had no difficulty in spotting the most curious feature of Hong Kong arts funding, the fact that municipal councils contribute $1.3 billion, while the central body coughs up only $121 million. The suggested solution to this was for the Arts Development Council to milk the taxpayers for another $40 million. I must say that, although I have never subscribed to the 'cultural desert' fallacy about Hong Kong, I had not hitherto supposed the place to be soggy with subsidies. A spokesman for Zuni Icosahedron seems to have found it difficult to believe this much money was being thrown about. No doubt some of this incredulity was due to Zuni's particular problems in providing the necessaries for mysterious avant-garde happenings. Still he has a point. Hong Kong enjoys a wide variety of artistic offerings, but few of us would have believed we were the world's second most lavish patron of the arts. There must be a suspicion that all that money is being thrown about in a rather uneconomical way. I do not believe this has anything whatever to do with what the municipal councils dispense, generous lot though they are, or the central government, which is not a byword for parsimony either. The problem lies at the heart of any effort to subsidise the arts, and it goes like this: how do you help the artist while still leaving him or her some incentive to find a public and please it? Any artist who has a patron is going to be tempted to work mainly on things that will please that patron. Conversely, when ticket income is a flea bite we will seldom volunteer for the travails of public performance. Arts sponsorship in Hong Kong has too often succumbed to the argument that artists will only create if they have secure full-time employment. Actually this is nonsense. Almost every genius you can name, from Mozart to Michelangelo, lived a scrabbling existence, surviving from commission to commission. Financial insecurity is no barrier to the production of great art. Financial security perhaps is. Tame companies supported by councils have strong incentives to undertake safe, uncontroversial productions of the sort councillors like. They lack incentive to perform very often: the councillors all come to the first night anyway. The other trouble with having subsidised art is that it affects the market for the real thing. If people are used to paying $50 for a seat, thanks to official patrons' largesse, there will be little demand for seats at $100 price which would cover the costs of putting on a production. Governments can provide training and a wide range of cheap venues for arts of all kinds. It is difficult to go beyond that without entering the vicious spiral that leads to dependence on subsidy, bureaucratic inertia and bad art. I don't want to sound like a philistine but $1.8 billion, the total arts budget, is an awful lot of money. Could it perhaps be too much?