The arts were all too willing to oblige. What would you like us to do this year in exchange for our meagre grant? Offer diversion for bored kids in state schools? Sure. Spread a little happiness in prisons — why not? Sweep the streets — where do we start? Bowing and scraping, the arts had turned obsequious and were losing self-respect.
Start-ups and small ensembles increasingly chose to avoid the state pittance. William Christie and Emmanuelle Haim in France set up period orchestras with no state cash in their business plan. Neville Marriner, England's most recorded conductor, refused to waste precious time talking to the Arts Council. Two of Britain's most successful small theatres — the Watermill in Newbury, Berks, and the Menier Chocolate Factory in Southwark — transfer their shows to the West End and Broadway without a penny of tax subsidy.
Freedom from government can be vastly liberating. Part of the deal with politicians was that the arts must be accessible. Shed that requirement and the language changes. The arts can embrace elitism — which is nothing more sinister than the stubborn pursuit of excellence — and stop pretending that art is for all (it never was). That, in turn, allows artists to choose what they perform, no matter how abstruse, without regard to social relevance. It also empowers them to revalue their product. With state funding, the arts could not charge what they liked. Without it, they can set the prices as high as a football club does for international matches and souvenir shirts.
I would propose just two price bands for concert, opera and theatre tickets — €5 at the low end, €500 at the top, varying the proportion in each bracket according to the calibre of performers. Is that a valid model? It works well for airlines.
Instead of talking to politicians and fixers, the arts need to spend more time on customer relations. No airline treats passengers as contemptuously as concert halls and theatres do ticket holders — shove them in, rip them off for a programme and drink and leave them to find their own way around. The arts need to learn a thing or two from fundamentalist religion, which (as the Dutch know all too well) attracts new followers by greeting them at the doorway of the mosque, church or synagogue, asking if they need help with the service and inviting them home for lunch. What the arts need is not state support but more dedicated customer support.