Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Inspiring Prospects - From Funded by the Arts Council to Developed by the Arts Council

The document, Inspiring Prospects,  published by the Arts Council earlier this year. has identified the necessity of moving from being a funding agency to a development agency. I would wholeheartedly agree. Ireland - in general - is very poor at development in all areas. I welcome this shift in focus, but we need to analyse it. Lets' be honest,  with the council on the back foot financially it would be very easy to see this statement as a necessary cover-up: we can't afford to fund anything so lets say we're in development. (I remember a very senior local authority person at a board meeting for an arts organisation some years ago, when he finally realised that the organisation actually had no money, suggest "could we not do a few community projects? You know, they cost nothing and you get a load of people involved".  Let's hope we're not heading for that kind of development.)

The document uses the terms  ‘Development’ and the ‘Public Good’ but does not really explain what they mean by these terms (sure we all know what they mean, don't we?). When we talk about development are we talking about the development of the audience (a much needed increase in market size) or are we talking about the development of artists (what kind of development and how do we achieve it?), or are we talking about the development of the arts sector, (transforming it from a community of occasionally shared interests into a viable Cultural Industry?) And of course we have to ask, development to what end?

And how do we measure the impact of what we do on the ‘Public Good’? This is a real question and a real economic conundrum– what are the metrics and the methods? There are numerous ways of assessing the value of the Public Good, but they are complex, time consuming and not all are in agreement. (As an aside, the ‘Public Good’ concept does not carry much sway in neo-liberal economic ideology). What we can say is that The Public Good will not be significantly impacted for at least a decade, so are we to divert limited resources to a ten year longitudinal study and expect the political system to wait for those results?

A shift from funding to development can be compared to a losing team switching from an offensive to a defensive strategy when the real issue is they shouldn't be playing the game at all and they certainly shouldn't be on that pitch. In other words if we are to move to development then the wider context of the arts needs to change and not just the intent and funding tools of an already hard pressed Arts Council.

The arts are facing a raft of challenges created by the alleged decline in audiences, by new technologies, by rising costs, and by shifts in economic ideologies; these challenges demand a reappraisal of the role of the arts in our society, of the relationship between the arts and the state (and the economy) and an understanding of the changing intellectual framework in which the debate on the arts and “the cultural industries” is carried on. We really don't need to be rearranging the deck chairs again. 

The challenges facing the Council and the arts community at this time are far greater than those brought about by the decline in what was – even at its height – a below par level of state funding. The challenges are not just a function of how much money the council has to disburse but are embedded in the legislative framework (the arts act really needs to be rewritten and made fit for purpose), the tax environment, the funding sources and models, the simple mathematics of market size, and the wider political “culture” of state funding that has created a ghetto of grant dependent, exclusive, high art categories and has no real faith in, or understanding of, the inherent value or the social function of the arts.

(It's been suggested to me over the last few months that the problem is further exacerbated by a lack of understanding and belief in - at the most senior levels - the artists and the art produced - but that's another story).

If the arts council is to become a development organisation then we need to ask what will it develop, and at what point the development becomes sustainable? 

This shift toward development is informed (as nearly everything is) by the Arts Act, in particular the phrases “stimulating public interest in the arts, promoting knowledge, appreciation or practice of the arts, or improving standards in the arts”.  But all of these are educational activities and really should be returned to that portfolio at the earliest opportunity. Even if the Arts Council ceased funding all of its clients and tried to run programmes to meet these objectives they would have very little impact without the co-operation and integration of the educational system (which is also under enormous pressure).

I would agree that audience development based on community involvement is an essential component of any plan but audience and arts production must be developed together and that is one of the big challenges. There is no future in developing an audience for a product, service or experience that either does not exist or cannot attract and retain an audience, and conversely there is no point in developing a product, service or experience for which there is no audience.  The dependency model of state funding deployed over the last twenty years has created a situation for the cultural industries where their principal customer is the Arts Council, and their efforts are all turned toward winning that customer, despite its ever-decreasing purchasing power. The side effect of this is that the cultural industries have put less time into developing and working with their audience than they have into creating approved art. 

The Council, the Department, the Government and the Cultural Industries must work toward creating new, real sources of funding if investment strategies and behaviours are to be changed, but we need to acknowledge that the council engages in funding and not investment (although that can change). We also need to acknowledge that everything in Ireland is funded – either through direct state spending or soft loans, tax relief, low corporate tax rates, FDI support, bailouts, underwriting and other incentives. The availability of funding is not really the issue, it is the availability of multiple sources, channels and forms of potential funding that effectively distribute risk and can maximize potential returns that need to be addressed. (There are numerous effective ideas emerging from the UK and from Horizon 2020 to do with tax relief, incentives, debt underwriting and risk management all of which should be factored into any model of development).

For example, it should be possible for an arts project to be debt financed with that debt underwritten by the arts council over several years, and if funded by the Council then the council should share in the rewards if that project is commercially successful.

The problem with the current arts funding model is that money is perceived to leave the government coffers and never come back. It does of course come back in direct and (punitive) indirect taxation but optics are everything. For example the €12 Billion corporate tax that Apple managed to avoid paying is not seen as funding - but that is precisely what it is.  A development approach needs to understand the many, many ways that funding can be accessed. 

It is a commonplace of contemporary cultural economics that commercial and subsidised are not two opposing forces but opposite ends of a continuum. We need to make it easy for artists to travel along that continuum (they certainly can't make a living in the subsidised sector), and we need to realize that the "commercial" artist has the right to fail and the non-commercial artist has the right to make money. As a development agency the Arts Council can either  develop a type of work that it likes and approves of or it can develop an industry in which many permutations and possibilities thrive, and in which the risks of failure are effectively managed.

As a final note it is important to say first that the Arts have always been undervalued in Ireland, and second that we need to stop apologizing for the rising costs of the arts – it is in their economic nature, not a function of greed or mismanagement.

In summary I would say that the future of the cultural industries – of the Arts in Ireland - depends on our ability to create and manage multiple sources of funding and on our ability to create wealth from that which is funded.  That is what a development agency does.  Let the artists get on with the art.

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