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Why money spent on the arts is a wise investment

STARTING last night, and continuing all the way to Oscars Sunday, they will be rolling out the red carpet in Glasgow for the city's annual film festival.

While the pavement covering will be the same hue as the one at the Hollywood event, the traffic tends to be slightly different.

The Glasgow Film Festival's red carpet is more of a welcome mat than the entrance way to an exclusive gathering. As such it is more likely to host visitors wearing bobble hats and duffle coats than Dior dresses and Tom Ford tuxes.

There will be no George Clooneys (at least not this year), but there will be plenty of ordinary Georges and Annies, Lynns and Alans. For the GFF, these are the VIPs that matter, the paying punters who turn out in weather that would make a Husky wimper to watch films on the big screen.

Contrast what happens at the GFF, which receives support from the public/private Glasgow City Marketing Bureau and national bodies, with what is happening in Moray, where the council has axed its entire arts budget.

This is not so much rolling out the red carpet for the arts as putting up a closed sign and wreathing the place in barbed wire. Do not enter here, all ye artsy types looking to steal the books from our pupils' hands and the custard creams from the mouths of home helps.

Moray Council did not phrase matters quite like that, of course. Its justification was twofold. First, it would save money: £62,000 for the rest of this year, £94,000 for the next. Second, Moray residents do not see the arts as a priority. The council knows this because it carried out a consultation (wonder how much that cost). Allan Wright, the council leader, said people would prefer to maintain funding for the elderly, education and other services than pony up for the arts.

As crass decisions go, this would make the casting of The Krankies in a remake of Casablanca look inspired. The simple explanation is that Moray Council is run by a coalition of Conservatives and Independents, political breeds who pride themselves on their practical bent than their aestheticism. When they hear the word culture they reach for the balance sheet and earplugs.

As such, this annihilation of the arts budget could be seen as an unfortunate but isolated incident. Yet Moray is not the only council having its budget squeezed. Hammered by rising living costs and stagnant or falling incomes, council taxpayers across Scotland are in a bind. As we are constantly told, this is the age of austerity, where everyone has to choose between bread or circuses. Given economic forecasts, what happens in Moray today could occur elsewhere in years to come. It may not be as extreme, the cuts may be hidden within the labyrinthine funding structures of local authorities, but there is no denying that the arts are an easy target.

What a culturally blighted nation Scotland would be if we go down this road, and what an outdated, muddle-headed, short-sighted view to have of the arts as luxuries that can be canned when times are rotten.

Though we take it for granted now, it is only relatively recently that councils have begun to put money into the arts directly. Funding "culture" used to mean paying for libraries and the odd local gala; now it means giving money to theatre companies and jazz festivals.

The councils that have a good reputation in this area – among them Glasgow and Dundee – do so not because they are stuffed with chichi types who want to play patrons of the arts with other people's money. There might be a few like that, but in the bare-knuckle world of local government politics it would be a brave sort who acted for that reason alone. Councils, in common with governments at every level in the developed world, fund the arts because, in general, every pound spent is repaid with interest.

Glaswegians will recall the sniggers from elsewhere when the city was named the first European Capital of Culture in 1990. How others hooted at the notion that this grimy little place could line itself up against the shimmering cultural giants of Paris, Rome or London.

But Glasgow dared to be that Daniel. The wealth did not trickle down to everyone. Ballet, it turned out, did not improve life expectancy in Shettleston. Opera failed to halt water running down the walls of a high-rise flat. Yet the move paid off in other ways. According to a report published in 2011, the year of culture went on to generate some 30,000 jobs in the creative industries. No mean feat for no mean city.

Would Glasgow currently have the tourism it enjoys, the number of live performances, the media sector, the film festival, the jazz festival, Celtic Connections, the Turner Prize in 2015, the Commonwealth Games, the sheer buzz of the place, without that spectacularly gallus move to put itself on the cultural map two decades ago? Outside Glasgow, would Dundee have secured the V&A without years of Dumfries and Galloway's investment in the visual arts setting the tone?

If every council took the attitude of Moray only national companies, supported by the Scottish Government and earnings at the box office, would survive. Arts would return to the elitist days of old, where high culture was only for those with a high income, and every community in Scotland would be the poorer for it, especially those outside the central belt. As it is, if you live outside the major cities, seeing a play or even a film requires the mounting of an expedition that wouldn't shame Dr Livingstone.

The value of the arts cannot simply be measured in figures, however. Some projects will never make money. There are other ways to measure worth. This is the part of the debate where violins start to soar and the sceptical listener is asked to imagine a Scotland in which bluebirds fly over the heads of happy citizens as they flit to the theatre or gallery, dumping their cares and anti-depressant prescriptions along the way. A Scotland where art is not just for art's sake, but for the sake of happiness too.

I know, pass the sick bucket. But even the most ferocious pincher of pennies will acknowledge that money spent on the arts is an investment in people's well-being. Good times, thought-provoking times, are quite simply good for us. Be it the Merchant City or Moray, our little life is rounded with sleep and work and cares enough. Think again, councillors.

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