Before the Arts Council
: campaigns for state funding of the arts in Britain 1934-1944

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This thesis examines the origins of government subsidy of live music and theatre in Britain before and during World War II. It challenges the prevailing narrative that in Britain before 1939 the issue was rarely raised and even more rarely supported. The thesis reveals that the 1930s was a period of intense discussion about state involvement in the arts, with active movements in favour of subsidy and strong support within parts of the government; and that these discussions continued during the war independently of the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA), the state agency set up to distribute money for theatre, music and the visual arts. This is the first attempt to study these issues in detail. The focus is research into three campaigns. First, Alfred Wareing’s League of Audiences gained thousands of column inches of favourable press coverage between 1934 and 1938 and at several points appeared close to success. It raised fundamental issues about the role of the arts in what many saw as a struggle against an increasingly mechanised society where film, radio and recording were damaging not only the live arts but society more generally. Second, the Stage and Allied Arts Defence League ran a remarkably successful campaign for ‘negative state subsidy’ - the removal of Entertainments Duty, imposed on live theatre and music in 1916. The tax concessions it gained in the 1930s were worth more than any annual grant to CEMA or the Arts Council before the 1950s. The third was John Christie’s ‘Council of Power’/National Council of Music, active from 1938 to 1944. Christie, founder of Glyndebourne Festival Opera, gathered some of the leading cultural figures of the day as an ‘alternative Arts Council’. During the war Christie’s Council attracted opposition from John Maynard Keynes, CEMA’s Chairman, and Rab Butler, the Minister responsible for CEMA. This conflict influenced the design and principles of the Arts Council. The thesis demonstrates that campaigns for state arts funding had high profile and considerable influence before and during the war; that the creation of an arm’s length government body to channel public funds to the arts was close to realisation in the 1930s; that through tax breaks the government actively supported live music and theatre during the 1930s; and that even after CEMA was established, its evolution into the Arts Council was neither smooth nor certain.
Date of Award1 Jul 2019
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorPatricia Thane (Supervisor) & Michael Kandiah (Supervisor)

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