Then What Are We Fighting For Anyway?

The quote that this entry’s title comes from, Churchill’s response to the suggestion that funding for the arts be cut to save money during the Second World War, is unfortunately apocryphal.

He did however, refuse to send the art from the National Gallery to Canada on the belief that the Axis powers would be beaten.

The closest to the quote that he got was in 1938:

“The arts are essen­tial to any com­plete national life. The State owes it to itself to sus­tain and encour­age them….Ill fares the race which fails to salute the arts with the rev­er­ence and delight which are their due.”

Granted this is before the war started so he may not have felt as strongly about cutting funding once hostilities got underway.

However, funding art during troubled times has been seen as a way to reassure the populace. I found the following on the National Performing Arts Convention website:

“In the third year of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln ordered work to go ahead on the completion of the dome of the Capitol. When critics protested the diversion of labor and money from the prosecution of the war, Lincoln said, ‘If people see the capitol going on, it is a sign that we intend this Union shall go on.’ Franklin Roosevelt recalled this story in 1941 when, with the world in the blaze of war, he dedicated the National Gallery in Washington. And John Kennedy recalled both these stories when he asked for public support for the arts in 1962. Lincoln and Roosevelt, Kennedy said, ‘understood that the life of the arts, far from being an interruption, a distraction, in the life of the nation, is very close to the center of a nation’s purpose- and is a test of the quality of a nation’s civilization.”

–Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.

While Churchill may not have advocated for arts funding during the war, the predecessor of the Arts Council of England was formed and funded in those early years with John Maynard Keynes leading the organization.

…In December 1939, in a world darkened by war, winter and blackout, a small group of civil servants and educators met to discuss the crisis in the arts. Great museums and galleries were empty, their contents packed off to safety from bombing. The theatres were shut, orchestras about to disband. The committee agreed that it was essential “to show publicly and unmistakably that the Government cares about the cultural life of the country. This country is supposed to be fighting for civilisation.”

In 1940, with an initial budget of £50,000 (about £2 million in today’s values) the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts, mother to today’s Arts Council, was born. The Daily Express thundered: “What madness is this? There is no such thing as culture in wartime.”

When the earthquake struck Haiti a couple years ago, one thing I noticed during the news stories was that people were coming together and singing. It didn’t stop the bleeding or miraculously heal broken bones, but it brought people together and gave them strength to hold on until help arrived.

And when people were rally help for Haiti and those impacted by Hurricane Sandy, musicians and other artists and professionals were the public voice and face of the appeal in so many instances. These people didn’t just emerge from a vacuum fully formed, they are a result of environments which cultivated and valued their talent across decades of careers.

Ian McKellen was recently quoted as saying there will no longer be great actors of the calibre like himself, Derek Jacobi and Judi Dench because the repertory theatre movement which cultivated these people has died out.

Sure, it may be a case of a septuagenarian complaining “kids today…” but he reminds us that he and his colleagues weren’t born fantastic and imbued with gravitas but worked toward it over time.

Granted, it is difficult to plan and invest resources long term at the expense of the present. By the same token, laying a little bit away now for the future sends a message you have a vision of a future worth investing in. There is value in that on many fronts.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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