Showing posts with label Arts Funding. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Arts Funding. Show all posts

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.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Never Waste a Good Recession

As the recession continues to deepen and the cuts in arts spending continue apace I want to share a fantastic quote from John Berger. Its from his introduction to Arundhati Roy's collection of essays - "The Algebra of Infinite Justice". Berger says this: "For those living with some comfort in the First World, the future no longer exists as a common reference point. Yet, for human beings, being sane depends on the acknowledgement of a continuity between the long since dead and those waiting to be born. The richer societies are being increasingly deprived of a temporal dimension essential to any spiritual life".

When I read this it occurred to me that the word I hear most frequently in the media and from the mouth of politicians is "back". Back to the markets; back to 2007 levels; get our sovereignty back; get back to where we where.

But aren't we where we are because of where we were? Surely the point is to move on from where we are to someplace better? Somebody once remarked that every organisation is perfectly designed to achieve the results it achieves. In other words we are where we are because where we were was perfectly designed to get us here. So why would we want to get back to it?

"...the future no longer exists as a common reference point" says Berger, implying that we cannot, collectively, imagine a future. Sure, we can imagine more stuff, but can we actually imagine a better way of organising ourselves? The mainstream media and the mainstream politicians don't seem to be able to imagine a better world. They can imagine the same world and promise that they'll manage it better next time but what evidence is there to support such a claim. (The latest Oxfam report has claimed that "Globally the incomes of the top 1% have increased 60% in twenty years. The growth in income for the  top 0.01% has been even greater." Never waste a good recession).

Any suggestion that there is another way of organising a society, managing resources, providing services, exchanging stuff is dismissed as silly, or as dangerous, or worse, as Leftwing.

Imagine another way of doing it.

One of the common themes in the literature of Leadership, dating back to the Greeks, is that of Vision. Leadership is equated with the ability, first and foremost, to imagine a desirable future. Yes, the Leader is then expected to be able to communicate that vision and motivate us to want to reach for that vision, but first and foremost the Leader must be able to imagine that new world. "I dreamed a dream" as Martin Luther King said, or in the words of Steve Job's favourite ice hockey player "I skate to where the puck is going to be; not where it is".

What we really lack right now, within the official structures of our society,  is Leadership. The ability to imagine a desirable outcome, communicate that desire and marshall the available resources to undertake the journey. Many people have anger and passion. Others have nostalgia masquerading as Leadership. I fear that the latter group have their hands on the wheel.

But this is meant to be a blog on arts. So is there a crisis of leadership in the arts. I would say yes. At this point everybody starts citing examples of great people doing genuinely great things. I know some of them and envy many of them but this is not about the people doing incredible things despite the constraints. This is about the constraints.  As one writer put it, I can't remember who, "we should not confuse Leaders and Leadership".

I would argue that the structure in which arts struggle has to change. The structure is in the keeping of the Government and its appointed agencies. They are ones who, at this time, control the investment and make the policies, decide what art is good and what is not, decide who gets the resources and who doesn't. The cuts continue and they continue as if there were only one way of doing business - the way that it has always been done. No vision. Sit tight and it will all be fine. We'll get "back" to where we were eventually.

No. We won't.

There will be more cuts this year, and for the foreseeable future. Lets not forget that the reduction in state spending is not a temporary measure. Once state spending is reduced it will stay down because that is what this economic ideology demands and because unless we return to double digit growth (which is not going to happen) we will not have the money to get funding levels "back" to where they where.

I had a conversation with Paul Meade of GĂșna Nua late last year. We were talking about funding and funding cuts. The point was made that the arts could never win the "which do we fund? The play or the Hospital Bed" argument. And the Arts cannot win that argument.

A Leader would say that this is the kind of argument managers have. The real conversation, the Leadership conversation is what kind of world do we want to live in and what place do the arts have in that world.

But we can't have that conversation because, according to the people in charge, we already know what kind of world we want: it's this one, we just have to fix it.

The last two lines of Howard Brenton's translation of Brecht's Galileo come to mind:
 "Unhappy the age that has no heroes.
No. Unhappy the age that needs them"

Never Waste a Good Recession, as some famous business man said prior to a bout of asset stripping and "rationalisation".

The Arts - like every other institution in our society - have an enormous opportunity now. Previous strategies failed to create a resilient, sustainable and integrated industry. The Arts are not the heart of our society, not at the heart of our educational system, and are dependent on a single source of investment supporting an overwhelmingly consumer model of social value.  If we wait to get "back" to where we were then the size of the arts sector will dwindle. The challenge to us all is can we imagine another kind of industry, another way of doing it.

So. First step.


Do we have one?