Thursday, September 2, 2010

Today's question: To subsidize the arts, or not to subsidize the arts?

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
By Barry Johnson

Sitting here on the Upper Left Coast of America, I envy the rich subsidies that European countries lavish on the arts. It leads me to believe that they understand the deep, widespread cultural benefits that the arts supply, not to mention the tangential economic benefits in the form of tourism they attract. And though I appreciate the inevitable politics that enter into these subsidies, both the total amount and the individual recipients, I'm willing to let the democratic chips where the democratic chips may, I suppose.

New York City's cultural institutions (that would be Mid-Upper Right Coast, right?) want to travel that same path. According to an article in Crain's, they've begun a three-year campaign to raise the subsidy that the city gives to the arts from .23 percent of the city budget (they now receive $149.5 million) to a full one percent. Assuming the overall budget stays the same, that would increase the city's contribution to cultural institutions to around $600 million, which sounds practically European. It's not a straight, up-or-down vote in New York City: They have to elect city council members favorably disposed to the idea to pass it. That's not easy.

At the same New York is attempting to Europeanize its support for the arts, the UK is starting to Americanize its approach: Less public subsidy, more private support from philanthropists of various sorts and corporate marketers.  That's what the Conservative-Liberal government is proposing, anyway -- a 25 percent cut in public money for the arts over the next few years. And a recent survey shows that their proposal has support among voters. Two-thirds agreed with the government's plan.

An essay by David Lister, arts editor of the Independent, argues that a change in funding sources might actually encourage more "radical" artmaking, not less, because the country's arts establishment is so conservative and undemocratic. Smaller, more agile, more marketing-savvy arts institutions might grow at the expense of the behemoth, non-adaptive museums, ballets, orchestras and theaters that gobble up most of the resources now.  It's a free enterprise argument, I guess, or possibly an anti-monopoly argument (I don't know Lister's politics well enough to know):  Dynamic forces in the culture will be unleashed once the ruling class's hold on power is loosened a bit.

I don't know about this. All I see is a lot less money sloshing around the system, which would have gone into feeding artists and the UK's remarkable cultural apparatus.  Maybe the UK doesn't deserve those riches? Certainly, it doesn't if the money isn't administered fairly and democratically. But a lot of its importance as a nation is built on this cultural legacy, which it continues to build. Sure, the UK has nukes and an important world economy, but it is still the cultural center of the English-speaking world (pace New York). I'm not sure that gambling with that particular stake makes sense, even for a Conservative government that doesn't much care for the fringe-ier precincts of British artmaking.

In Portland, one percent of the city's budget would be something like $34 million a year, roughly $30 million more than it gives to the Regional Arts & Culture Council now. (Just for comparison's sake, the Creative Advocacy Network's working approximation of the amount it would like to harvest from a Portland tax levy in 2012 is $15-$20 million, and that's going to be a hard argument to win, I'm assuming.)  An extra $30 million.  I wonder what an extra $30 million would buy? And not just a one time deal, but year after year, growing a little as the city's budget expands in good years, contracting a little during the bad economic years. It's possible that we could mismanage a largess of that size, but it would also have the possibility of transforming cultural life here, it's that much more than we currently spend.

What's disturbing about the cuts in the UK is that it's out of proportion to cuts in other programs. As we've been talking about in our posts about the Detroit Symphony, when overall economic circumstances change drastically, we expect cultural institutions to change, too. But apparently, the arts were an easy target for a much larger hit, an ideological target, but that's a subject for another post.

No comments: