Politics, Players, and Pork - Part II

Arts Fund

Photo by Julius Hibbert — Creative Commons License Some Rights Reserved

The year-end positions of arts funding continues to spark debates, protests, and political ploys on both sides of the Atlantic.

The slap at the Bush Theatre in the UK is but one telling example. The Arts Council proposed cutting their funding by 40%. For any business, let alone a small arts organization, that’s an enormous unexpected hit. Previously, the Bush had received £480,000 pounds ($942,000). In the next cycle, the proposal was to grant them £300,000 pounds ($588,000).

Ninety-seven writers, including Margaret Atwood, Caryl Churchill, David Edgar, David Hare, Christopher Hampton, Hanif Kureishi, Neil LaBute, Mike Leigh, Harold Pinter, Salman Rushdie, Tom Stoppard, Arnold Wesker, and Timberlake Wertenbaker disagreed with the Council’s decision in a public letter:

Playwriting has always been at the heart of Britain’s theatrical life. Our playwrights are the envy of the world because there have been and are theatres able to devote resources to the development and presentation of their work. The Bush Theatre is unique as a theatre prepared to produce first plays, take risks on new playwrights, and thus launch careers. For 35 years, the Bush Theatre has discovered, developed and presented distinctive playwrights, whose work gives an extraordinary account of contemporary Britain and our changing world.

These heavyweights of theatrical life are demanding that the Council understand, and honor, the role of a small incubator of culture in the present and future of UK identity. How small? The Bush has only 81 seats. Think about that: 81 seats, and £480,000 pounds ($942,000) a year in subsidy.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the Boston Foundation issued a report on the arts which proposed that small organizations might want to spend more time thinking about an exit strategy — that is, closing down — rather than figuring how to continue to fund their work.

Isn’t that a sweet analysis? You are small, insignificant, and outside the mainstream — why should you exist? Sounds like a kind of nostalgia for the Middle Ages, an age America missed no matter how much one political party seems to want to bring it back.

Ian MacKinnon of Artezani organized a wonderful response: he staged an event of “artyrs” who drank Kool-Aid and took part in a “die-in.” Of course, they needed some funding to pull off the event. MacKinnon asked the Boston Foundation for twenty $500 grants to cover the “funeral costs” under the Foundation’s category of “encouragement grants.”

He was turned down — but encouraged to apply in the future. For his second funeral?

The British Arts Council and the Boston Foundation share a similarly misguided, and culturally dangerous, point of view with the wrong focus and the wrong measurement.

Their focus is on the large institutions because of the numbers of audiences that they serve. However, in a way these are the palaces that least need the government’s support. Think it about this way: If someone was interested in giving an arts institution $10 million, do you believe they are going to give it to an obscure tiny theatre (and thereby ensure that company’s work in perpetuity), or are they going to give it to an institution such as the Metropolitan Opera where their name can be engraved in gold in the lobby for all to see?

If you doubt this, go ahead and check out the major institutions and try to find someone who gave anonymously. Giving for engraving becomes “engiving.”

Just as important is the application of business goals to cultural development. In business, success is determined by a very simple measurement: you either grow or you die.

However, the arts must be measured by the quality of the impact on artists, audiences, and the art form’s development.

The future of a nation’s culture is not the marble columns, the plush seats, or even those engraved names, no matter how high they rate their own significance.

The future of culture uses the platform of the past to develop new artists, new audiences, and most importantly, new art.

Politicians always try to win votes by talking about the need to invest in education, to invest in our future. Maybe, the politicians and their funding bodies should begin to use the same language when they approach creating policy for the future of culture.

- Bill Reichblum

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