The Playgoer: Arts Funding: Tale of Two Cities

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Thursday, February 01, 2007

Arts Funding: Tale of Two Cities

Interesting to see the big cheeses of the NYC arts institutions bristling a bit in today's Times in response to what was heralded just a few days ago as a great reform in city arts funding. I can only assume that after the initial celebration, the CIG bigwigs (that's Cultural Institutions Group--City Hall lingo for the big museums and performance companies housed on city property) maybe made a call over to the Times to share their side of the story?

To quote:

But for organizations that did benefit from the system, receiving sizable Council add-ons that they came to rely on each year, the changes could mean a significant loss. Inevitably, those involved in the process say, more for some organizations will mean less for others, since the overall pot has not increased. Every year 34 organizations in city-owned buildings — including some heavyweights like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Carnegie Hall, the Bronx Zoo and the Brooklyn Academy of Music — are guaranteed city funds. City officials announced last week that in the 2008 fiscal year they would share $115.3 million, as well as $4.4 million from a “new needs” fund, for a total of $119.7 million.

That is $4.3 million less than the $124 million that these organizations — known jointly as the Cultural Institutions Group — ended up with last year after $22 million in Council restorations.
Interesting to see what might happen to the initial proposal if the biggies start throwing their weight around a bit. You see, all that talk of how glad arts org's were not to have to lobby anymore didn't apply to the CIG's, who already have defacto lobbyists on staff! (Or on their boards.)

But buried deeper in the article is yet more disturbing signs that all arts org's are going to be increasingly held accountable to corporate rather than aesthetic standards of "performance":
Under the new rules, starting in the 2009 fiscal year, which begins in July 2008, the 34 arts groups will also have to work harder for their money, receiving only 90 percent of their funds up front. The rest will be conditioned on their performance through an evaluation process called CulturalStat, a program modeled on the Police Department’s performance-monitoring system.

Arts groups will be reviewed in areas like audience development and financial planning and may receive a portion of the 10 percent balance if they do not qualify for the whole amount.
Modeled on the Police Department!

Notice once again that the current philosophy of civic arts funding rewards those groups who already have money (and thus can develop corporate, or even civil defense-style, management and accounting structures) more than those who most need it. The message inevitably is: spend money (i.e. raise money) to get money. Answer: bigger "Development" staffs and more creative time and effort put into your "Gala" than your plays.

Meanwhile, over to London, where Lyn Gardner has an eerily relevant post on the Guardian blog about the unsatisfying politics increasingly going into funding there.

The Tory approach was simply to stifle the arts by cutting off as much funding as it could, but Labour's approach has been more insidious: the Arts Council - set up to be independent and at arm's length from government--is increasingly acting as a state agency, implementing the policy of an administration that sees no intrinsic value in the arts themselves.

In theatre, projects are increasingly assessed not on their artistic merits but on their measurable outcomes, whether it is preventing teenage pregnancy or contributing to social or economic regeneration. The arts are no longer valued for themselves, but only for what they can contribute to government policy. They have been rebranded as cultural industries whose value must be measured and weighed. This week saw
an announcement of the Arts Council's priorities for 2006-8, which include participation, celebrating diversity, children, the creative economy, vibrant communities and internationalism. I can't argue with any of those, but what I would question is whether it is up to the Arts Council to be setting "the agenda", as Sir Christopher Frayling, Chair of the Arts Council, calls it. Artists are increasingly tired of the tick-box culture that decides who does and who doesn't get the money, and what kind of art can, and cannot, be made.

Her overall point, about how theatre companies get more grants for "educational" projects than for anything else, and how that can skewer them away from the work they should be doing, couldn't be more relevant here as well.


Anonymous said...

Couldn't agree with you more, Playgoer. This is a terrible development, and part of the "No Child Left Behind"-ization of our entire culture. Nothing has value unless it generates concrete, measurable results, and no one and nothing is to receive a dime of public funding unless there's a system of so-called accountability in place.

But theaters don't make widgets. Butts in seats, or stringent fiscal controls, or any other "result," don't adequately measure artistic excellence, any more than good scores on standardized tests measure rounded, humanistic educations. Theaters are already under pressure to make work that's fundable rather than artistically necessary; this will only make things worse. And the leadership strata of institutional American theater, already characterized by a scarcity of practicing artists in its ranks, will only grow more wonkish, until an MBA will be a necessary prerequisite for an Artistic Directorship.

Unfortunately, it's unlikely that anyone will stand up and yell about this -- where's Joe Papp when you need him? -- out of sheer fear of retributive funding cuts. So keep on calling it out: we need you!

Anonymous said...

wow, great post. and great blog! i'll be here reading!

Village Green said...

Once you sign yourself up to beg for your share of the government's arts-designated funds, you gain some stability and lose a whole lot of independence. And that stability may only be temporary. What the government giveth, the government can take away.

Yes, I'd love to designate that my tax dollars go to support theatre rather than blowing Iraq and its citizens to bits. But it never works out that way.

As for the increased designation of funds to support theatre that has a message -- at least the powers that be finally recognize that live theatre has some usefullness. The trick is to devise a project that adds value to the community without devaluing the artistry that goes into creating the project.