In May I spoke at a conference in Manchester organised by Euclid entitled ‘Creative Europe in a Time of Austerity’ – you can see my presentation on Prezi here. There were many great examples of organisations finding new ways of turning funding reductions into new opportunities for creative work and enterprise. Dan Eastmond, Director of the Firestation in Windsor gave a tough presentation essentially berating arts organisations for being dependent on public subsidy, a topic he also covered in typically forthright fashion in a blogpost for Arts Professional here.
This is a theme I have also talked about with my clients and in conference talks around Europe. The depressing thing, as Dan points out in his blog, is that so much of the debate about the ‘value of the arts’ is in reality a discussion about ‘how do we get more public subsidy.’ I am very uncomfortable with the idea that the value of arts is measured mainly by the amount of public subsidy it can unlock. Indeed in some countries artists and arts leaders get very close to suggesting that arts which do not receive public subsidy are no more than mere entertainment – in other words, art is defined by public subsidy.
I don’t think this can or should be true and there are many counter-examples (not least almost the entire history of western culture before 1945!) but, for three generations of arts managers and policy makers in Europe raised in a system of heavy state-funding, it is hard not to think this way. One interesting statistic presented at the Euclid conference by Peter Inkei of the Budapest Cultural Observatory is that public funding of the arts in France and The Netherlands is four times as much, per head of population, as in the UK. One has to ask what exactly the French or the Dutch are getting for all that extra money – More art? Better art? Perhaps there really is solid evidence that all this extra spending produces something remarkable – if so, we in Britain should be using this evidence to demand the same from our government.
I am not holding my breath for such evidence. Some artists regard the very question of what impact or outcomes is achieved by arts funding as irrelevant, and people who ask such a thing must be soul-less philistines. But even those who recognise the validity of the question are faced with the difficulty of defining the value and impact of the arts and then measuring it. This is why the recently announced collaboration between the Royal Society for the Arts (RSA) and the Arts Council of England (ACE) is very welcome. The economic impact question is part of this, but only one part.
One of my clients, the International Film Festival Rotterdam, continues to receive good levels of public funding despite recent cuts. But her stated aim is that IFFR should become ‘free of public subsidy’. Yet she also wants to increase the amount of public funding they get. How to reconcile the two statements? The clue is the word ‘subsidy’ – she wants to negotiate partnership arrangements with a variety of public and private organisations based on mutual interests and ambitions. In this she echoes Emily Gray, Artistic Director of Trestle Theatre Company which lost its entire ACE core funding in 2011.In an interview with the BBC She says that, after a difficult period the company feels that it has been “liberated” by the loss of funding and is now “more creative.” She goes on to say that her relationship with funders is now one of equals rather than “parent-child.”
Now isn’t that something for all arts organisations to aspire to?