Home > art, cultural commentary, performance > Arts, (lack of) money and the need for inventiveness

Arts, (lack of) money and the need for inventiveness

The unsurprising news emerged yesterday that many UK arts organisations will have their public funding reduced or cut entirely. The arts generally is always a bit of a soft target, open to a range of criticisms from less eligibility (‘how can you spend money on the arts when there are no many funding shortfalls in health/welfare/education?’) to profligacy to poor taste (‘you mean my taxes paid for that crap to be displayed in the gallery?’).

I have, I confess, very mixed views about this. On the one hand, my own ‘involvement in state funded art’ amounts to reading my stories at a couple of events that received Arts Council and local authority subsidies. That’s probably about as much as any writer does. On the whole we work in a sector of the arts that gets probably less public funding than any other. On the other hand, I’m aware I go to events, exhibitions and the like that cost vastly more to put on than can be paid for through ticket sales, so I’m benefiting from arts funding in that sense.

State funding isn’t always the best kind of funding to have, and a lot of the most innovative work often happens in obscure holes and corners of the art world (I mean ‘art’ in its broadest sense to include the whole spectrum of artistic endeavour), funded in ways that range from impromptu to implausible, and in some cases the artwork itself is carried out in secretive and illegal ways – yes, I’m thinking here mainly of graffiti. But that said, we also need to recognise that what’s obscure and innovative at one point in time is the orthodoxy twenty years later, and that the UK as a whole is a major global producer in the economy of signs and images. It relies heavily on the flow of artistic and cultural talent in all kinds of areas from music to art to scriptwriting, screenwriting, niche areas of film and even niche areas within film such as special effects. And, of course, development of computer games… it would wind up being a long list.

Anyway. Rant over. What intrigued me today was a BBC article, ‘Arts world gets creative in funding crisis‘. Ideas being tried out now are crowdfunding through multiple small donations via the Wedidthis, Sponsume and Wefund websites; sponsoring individual members of an orchestra, with side benefits including dinners with them; venues being opened up to events such as weddings and receptions; and increasing numbers of in-person and online courses in creative areas run by people who have public reputations in those areas.

The arts are being squeezed in all sorts of directions; not just public funding, but the role of the internet in providing free access to many arts products, whether because the artists have to put it out free for promotional reasons, or internet piracy (which in music and now increasingly in writing means that artists get paid nothing for their work and need to build other income streams – live performance or whatever).

It probably won’t all work out alright in the end. There will be casualties along the way, including, probably, the collapse of some well-known and well-respected organisations. The people who are most recession-proofed, however, will be those who’ve struggled without funding already, trying to get their artistic vision across in unconventional ways. I’d hope that those people, who are often the real cutting edge of new art talent, will be able to struggle for a bit longer, become even more inventive about how they operate, and not just survive but prosper. I’m hoping at least some people will find that what doesn’t kill them makes them stronger. And I’m hoping that’s not a vain hope.

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  1. March 31, 2011 at 1:27 am

    When things get tough, luxuries go first. What alarms me is the closing of chain bookstores. Last year we lost one, this year Books-a-Million, and that leaves only Barnes & Noble in a very sizable city. Sad state of affairs.

    What’s next? Pull up all the flowers and plant vegetables all around the house?

    • March 31, 2011 at 1:57 am

      Planting veg? We’ve been doing that for the last couple of years.

      The chain bookstore thing is a separate and more complicated issue. They’ve been hit by online sales and the kinds of bulk discounts supermarkets can demand from suppliers. If you want a book in any of the top 20 lists where I live, the Tesco supermarket is where you’d buy it. That means the Waterstones and what have you need to be far more creative about what they can offer.

      I’m not massively worried about people like me, since the bulk of my fiction is published in mags and mostly I get contributor copies as payment. I’m not worried about the state of a lot of contemporary music, for example, because my musical friends are still producing their own stuff, gigging in pubs and clubs, DJing and whatever. A lot of what’s really innovative is happening at that level. But many of the organisations that do facilitate people moving on, offering training or subsidising the use of venues or being able to commission larger plays or films or support community projects with premises and funds, will struggle and some will no doubt fail. Quite how they’ll do damage limitation or whether other stuff will happen in their place is going to be a challenge.

  2. March 31, 2011 at 2:27 pm

    True. I didn’t mean to sidetrack your post.

    Artist will be artist, no matter the economy. They may have to work at a supplemental job–as we do–to put vegetables on the table.

    I still bemoan the closing of chain bookstores. It true that grocery stores offer the Top Ten Best Sellers for cheap, but that’s too limited for me. When times get tough most business start paring down their inventory, but this stragety never works for them. They start shrinking and can’t stop.

    I’m not quite sure that government involvement in the Arts is…a good idea. More often than not, a system of favors for favors begins, and if you dig deep enough you find out that the feature artist is the cousin of the wife of the director.

    • March 31, 2011 at 2:50 pm

      I agree, creative people tend to be obsessive-compulsive about what they do (I certainly am), possibly to the detriment of earning an actual income if they’re at a stage before they get massive recognition and sales. People I know in bands often work gigs for recognition more than money because what they get paid sometimes won’t even cover the fuel to get to the gig, let alone buying new kit. They just hope that at some point they’ll get a critical mass of attention from people who’ll buy their stuff.

      I’m less concerned about the chain bookstores but do bemoan the closing of independents – I’ve blogged about this before. It’s a hell of a difficult field to be in and the ones that still exist probably have to work a lot harder at becoming a meeting point for different communities and groups. Much the same as cafes – a new(ish) cafe near me has become successful because it appeals to a bunch of ‘alternative’ type people who have very little money individually but go there to meet people like them – and en masse, they still have enough spending power to make the cafe work. Now, the cafe’s running little art displays, home to several groups from a pagan moot to a feminist group and a craft workshop, opening up the basement for craft fairs and so on. Oh, and they’ve started selling books…

      I know what you mean about the gravy train aspect of government funding. The thing about writers is that most of what we do isn’t ‘funded’ in any direct sense, but we do get indirect benefits – being included in collections that get published because a local group got a grant to showcase new talent, that sort of thing.

      The nepotism thing is interesting – because people exist in small circles within networks, with a collaborative project it’s often easiest to work with people you already know who share your vision and working practices. I’m sure if I were to want to make a film, I’d want to bring in a number of key players who share the same creative vision as me and who I’ve known for a number of years. Basically, they’re the people I’d trust to have the right skills and judgement to make the project work. The net result is the people you’d appoint as a nepotist are also the people you’d want to appoint on merit. Or I probably would, anyway!

  3. April 13, 2011 at 4:28 pm

    Great post! Something about Wefund founder Michael Troughton about his site’s unique approach to funding creative projects http://www.jotta.com/jotta/published/home/article/v2-published/1450/wefund

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