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No this is not the best way to run the arts

I have just chanced upon a copy of the Review section of the Observer of a week ago. In it there is a double page spread, entitled Is this the best way to run the arts?, which is about how various performing enterprises have now got grants they used not to have or who have had their grants increased, and how various other performing enterprises have had their grants cut or abolished.

As is the way in politics, the ones who are suffering are the ones now making the most noise. They blame horrid men in suits who do not understand art. Politicians in other words.

This almighty row has been brewing since just before Christmas when the Arts Council announced the most radical funding shake-up in its history: 194 organisations and individuals would have their grants substantially cut or completely withdrawn. While some cuts may be sensible, others seemed barely thought through, such as the proposal that the Northcott theatre in Exeter lose its entire grant (£547,000) from 2009. Clarie Middleton, acting chief executive, heard the news the day before reopening the theatre after a major refurbishment – funded in part by an Arts Council grant. ‘It’s like planting a bulb but as soon as a shoot appears, you cut it off,’ she said.

Other victims include new writing powerhouse the Bush (a 40 per cent cut), the London Sinfonia chamber orchestra (100 per cent) and Sheffield’s Compass Theatre Company (100 per cent), which had ‘absolutely no idea the company was in a precarious position with Arts Council Yorkshire’ and has since had to cancel a scheduled tour.

But if you want money from politicians, you ought not to be surprised when those same politicians take an interest in the money they are giving to you. After all, they were the ones who stole it, and they have to justify this thievery and to ensure that its proceeds are distributed in a way that satisfies their supporters and quiets their critics. True, the men in suits probably do not understand art very well. But these artists could do with a crash course in politics. They are getting it.

Politicians, especially the ones making the running now, like inflicting a radical shake-up every so often. To feed their friends, they are willing to make enemies, and their “cuts” (i.e. decisions to stop giving you money) are often hastily decided rather than “thought through”. And if they do decide to slash or abolish your grant, why would they warn you about this? As for those among them who are genuinely trying to shun mediocrity and to fund only “excellence” etc., how are they supposed to know what that is, or worse, is going to be next year or the year after? Arts funding is either politics, or a lottery.

The bottom line here is: if you place yourself at the mercy of politicians, they are all too liable to behave just like the politicians they are and show you no mercy at all. The way to avoid being at the mercy of these horrid men in suits is not to depend upon them for any of your income. Oh, it takes far longer to build up an arts enterprise which relies on voluntary support from eccentric or socially aspirational donors, and from customers who are actually willing to pay in sufficient numbers for your efforts. But once you have done this, you are far less vulnerable to politics, and you will have to waste far less of your life doing politics. True, the politicians might still shut you down or rob you blind, blinder than usual I mean. We must all live in the shadow of such threats. But at least, if you are not getting a government grant, closing you down ceases to be a routine decision that the men in suits are liable to make at any moment.

Some while ago now, I wrote this and this (also available as an .htm) on the above subject. Both still stand up pretty well, I think.

16 comments to No this is not the best way to run the arts

  • Absolutely. It’s disingenuous of arts people to talk about ‘cuts’, like someone is taking away money that’s theirs. What they mean by cuts is the Government deciding to give them slightly less of my (and your) money than before.

    I have some fairly silly artistic tastes (Iron Maiden, Jason Statham films) but I don’t expect the people of this country to subsidise my choices.

    It’s a shame that politicians are messing arts groups around like this though, it’s stupid to give and take away money at a whim.

    But this is bickering over money that should never have been given out in the first place. If you’ve got some kind of artistic venture, then find a patron or get your audience to pay for it. If you can’t do that, why the hell do you deserve my money to pay for your unpopular venture?

  • R. Richard Schweitzer

    “Run the Arts;” what a disclositive phrase. (From the Observer)

    Are these “Arts” part of “managed culture?”

  • Brian:

    Oh, it takes far longer to build up an arts enterprise which relies on voluntary support from eccentric or socially aspirational donors

    But would not the artists be just as vulnerable to the whims of their benefactors, only this time private ones? Granted, private people and organizations that support arts are more likely to actually understand and like the art they support than government clerks, but their tastes and fortunes are given to changes. Like you, I don’t think that arts should be funded with taxes, but it seems to me the argument you are making to support this position is not the right one.

  • Lascaille

    Alisa, that same argument applies to anything. You could easily substitute the manufacturers of those little ‘electronic pet’ toys or ‘artists’ in your sentence. Virtually anything that appeals to a public audience and isn’t an essential service exists only because people are willing to provide money.

    I don’t agree with tax funding of the arts, but I think the problem here is centralisation, not just politics. Each arts-entity recieved a grant from exactly one arts-funding-entity, so, like a pet, they exist entirely due to their singular ‘owner’ feeding them.

    An arts-entity that seeks private funding can at least try to build up a redundant network of donors and sponsors, thus avoiding the chance of 100% funding loss at one time.

  • “Granted, private people and organizations that support arts are more likely to actually understand and like the art they support than government clerks, but their tastes and fortunes are given to changes.”
    Seems to me the first part of this sentence answers your question, Alisa. The second part is also true but there is no way to eliminate uncertainty from this field or any other. “More likely” is the best any of us gets.

    There is also the point made earlier in the post that there are political motives for politicians to be actively destructive occasionally, rather than merely fickle.

    In particular, politicians have incentives to spring the announcement that the tap is being turned off on some form of “welfare” on the recipients without warning. The last thing they want is to give them time to work up a campaign.

  • You both make valid points. My larger point, and the one that should be made to artists in general, was that art is a product just like any other product. If someone wants to make a living from selling a product, they better find/create a customer base for it. If there is no such base, they better make a product that appeals to an existing one. If someone wants to make a product no one is willing to pay for, they are free to do so, and hopefully would be encouraged to do so by private donors, but they shouldn’t expect to make a living off it. I think that it makes sense for an artist to rely on private benefactors to some extent, for a limited time, under certain circumstances, for example as a means for an aspiring artist to promote themselves, or as a means to support their hobby, while they make a living by other means, etc. I imagine that Brian is not suggesting that artists rely exclusively on donors, so it is probably a moot point to make here. But believe me that I personally know people who think that artists should be able to make a living producing art even if no one is interested in that particular art. The usual argument goes something like: “But Van Gogh shouldn’t have died dirt poor just because no one was able to appreciate his art at the time”. The fact that an artist dies dirt poor has nothing to do with them being an artist, it has everything to do with the same reasons other, non-artist people die dirt poor.

  • Oh, and another common argument is that if ‘society’ does not subsidize art, poor people will not be able to afford to be exposed to it. Right. Where I live, we still subsidize bread, and don’t ask how wonderfully that works.

  • Pa Annoyed

    All these arguments assume the purpose of art is to entertain and edify the general public, that it is a product created for trade. Artists do art for its own sake – to advance knowledge and culture, to explore possibilities, to adorn the world and humanity with their achievement, for the glory of the human race.

    Manned space flight is art. Putting a flag on the moon is art. Sending people to Mars is art. Putting satellites into Earth orbit is trade.

    Pure mathematics, such as number theory, is art. Yes there are a few uses for some of it, but it is not done because of them. Economics and statistics are traded, are used to provide material benefits, but nobody does anything practical that uses the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem.

    The Large Hadron Collider is a work of art. There is no conceivable application foreseen for anything it might discover that we might be able to use for decades if not centuries. It will make no profit, and the vast majority of the general public will be totally unable to understand or appreciate what it achieves, except in the most sensationalised terms. Yes, OK, it momentarily achieves a temperature of 100,000,000,000,000,000 degrees C, but so what? How can we make money out of that?

    Science explores the universe for its own sake. Yes, sometimes it discovers things that are useful and can be traded and we have gained great benefit from it, but it isn’t why we do it. Sometimes you have to pretend it is, in order to get the money, and in the long run that’s bad, because it distorts science to follow political fashions, but that’s the way it goes. Art, I am certain, is exactly the same. By trying to trade it, we have forgotten what it is really for. We come to know the price of everything and the value of nothing, as they say.

    That’s not to say the way we go about it now is the best, or that the art produced nowadays achieves that grand vision. (My appreciation of the more ‘classical’ arts is limited, which is why I have spoken about the arts I know. But I think even most arty people secretly regard much of modern concept art as crap.) And there is of course the argument that people who do not understand or appreciate it should not be forced to pay for it, however small it might be compared to all the other money that is wasted, or however badly it might stunt humanity’s grander achievements. But it’s worth understanding what you’re really debating. Art isn’t a product. Should it be created nevertheless?

  • R. Richard Schweitzer

    It seems as if all this discussion is about the “distribution” of something (Art?) as though it is a commodity.

    If so, are we not looking at the side effects of changes in the modes of distribution of the visual and aural, and the variations in the impacts of the newer modes when compared to those formerly prevalent?

  • Pa: anything humans do can be viewed as a product (commodity per last comment) or not. It all depends on the context. Art is a product in the context of Brian’s post. It is not in the context of your comment. There is no contradiction. If I care for a sick parent at home, that is not a product or commodity. But if I am a worker at a retirement center doing the same for other people’s parents and getting paid for it, that’s different. Both cases are acceptable, and stand in no conflict to each other. To your question, should art be created even if there is no chance the artist is going to get paid for it: it should be entirely up to the artist. There are plenty of people who make art for the sheer joy of it, with the full knowledge that they will never see a penny from it. People should do whatever makes them happy, as long as they don’t harm others, and that includes forcing other people to pay for their indulgences.

  • Oh, and I absolutely agree with your point about parts of science and math being similar to art in this context. The same can be said about the study of humanities as well.

  • I largely or wholly agreed with all the comments following mine. This doesn’t make for a riveting comments thread, but I thought I’d mention it.

    I found a certain irony in the fact that the writer of this petition against one of the Arts Council cuts saw no irony in the use of a certain word:

    The Arts Council is proposing to axe funding to Dedalus Publishers in Cambridgeshire from January 2008, which will almost certainly lead to the company’s closure, just as it was about to celebrate 25 years of publishing.

    Dedalus is one of the most important independent literary publishers and translation houses in the UK…

    I’m honestly sorry for these guys. Although I should and do oppose all arts spending on libertarian principle, translating foreign books sounds more worthwhile than most of what the Arts Council does. But if the loss of the government dole is going to close you down then “independent” is just what you’re not.

  • You couldn’t make stuff like this up. I understand that by ‘independent’ he means ‘small’, i.e. not one of the big publishing houses. Newspeak at its most curious.

  • renminbi

    As a museum goer and collector(small scale) I wouldn’t argue the art isn’t anything other than a highly differentiated commodity. There is very good economic analysis of the subject by Prof.(economics) William Grampp. This is readily available
    on Amazon used books. The Netherlands for years supported artists by buying “art” that the public wouldn’t pay for on their own. The program ended after they got several warehouses full of this dreck and couldn’t figure out what to do with it.
    I strongly recommend Grampp- an entertaining an edifying read.

  • R C Dean

    Artists do art for its own sake – to advance knowledge and culture, to explore possibilities, to adorn the world and humanity with their achievement, for the glory of the human race.

    Well, putting aside the fact that many artists do in fact treat their output as a commodity, and granting this position in its entirety:

    It is still quite a leap to claim that art-as-noncommodity is entitled to involuntary funding.

  • R. Richard Schweitzer

    For those interested in the origins of this issue, a look at The Insoluble Problem: Supporting Art one of the essays in The Culture We Deserve by Jaques Barzun (1989)

    This is probably my 2d citation of this work. Odd it came up twicw (so far).