Funding the arts – time for a Renaissance

October 22, 2010 § Leave a comment

Arts & Business, the government-funded body which aims to bring corporate finance together with artists, is to be wound down.

Wednesday’s report in the FT was interesting in quoting the head of the organisation in a way which points to rivalry between Arts and Business and the Arts Council England, which is responsible for administering the largest slice of the funding cake[1].

Colin Tweedy, the chief executive of A&B, is quoted as saying:

“The Arts Council has told me more than once that it believes that the private sector is hard-wired to give money to the arts. That is nonsense”.

Arts funding is a tricky thing. When running a theatre company, I could never quite fathom what the problem with it was; but there were and are problems. It was clear – at least to most theatre artists – that funding was necessary. It was equally clear that is was flawed. As a young company we were referred immediately and constantly to Arts Council England (ACE). Talk about gatekeepers.

ACE itself demands that every project it funds finds a proportion of income from other sources, which makes sense. It’s possible but very difficult. ACE funding becomes not just a perceived requirement – there being no other reliable system to rival it – but also a ratification. We should try to and be able to get ACE funding, a theatre company feels. Otherwise we’re not doing it properly.

Theatre practitioners both depend on and complain about ACE in a way which seemed, to me, unhealthy; like Jean Genet’s Maids, railing against their employer but obsessed with her, unable to escape except through fantasy (or violence). Neither of which are going to help in dealing with a government funding body.

Looking from an edge-of-the-industry perspective (not working in the field, not divorced from it), the main problem with funding seems the excessive centralisation of decision-making. Too few people, making too many decisions, often based on too little evidence. I never dealt with A&B but I wonder whether in that case also centralisation – such a large amount of corporate money filtered through so few people – was really a good idea.

The upside of these systems is that artists only have one application form to fill in, while business only need deal with one agency.

Is that really an advantage for business? Yes, if what they want is to set aside a chunk of money and feel confident it’s going to ‘do good works’. No, if they want to be involved in the creation of something specific, to allow employees involvement on a personal level, to watch something grow and know they made it possible.

What if every company which does want to contribute to theatre as part of the arts landscape creates its own fund and invites applications (as some already do)? Project briefs can be as specific as the firm wants or they can, like ACE, have very little restriction. Companies applying might have to pick and choose and tailor, since blanket applications won’t be possible. But they will also have more chance of striking up fruitful relationships with more individuals.

As business entrepreneurs will often tell you, good negotiation is paramount. An organisation like A&B might bring parties together, but it also might take out that crucial personal element. Artists are always negotiating with the funding bodies; rarely with anyone else.

With all these funds set up, lots of very different things, green-lighted by many more different people, would be created. Some would be good, some bad, some would fizzle out and some – especially if artists formed a really strong partnership with their funding company – could go on to bigger successes.

It sounds like a Renaissance system of patronage. That might not be a negative thing. What would motivate the companies to do this with a portion of their profits? Probably whatever motivates them now; whether that is hard wiring or not.

How could any (reduced) government money be better distributed? I’m thinking about it…

[1] Ok, it’s the wrong metaphor, but getting a grant from ACE is a bit like being administered cake, as oppose, I suppose, to being offered a slice of cake. Or making your own damn cake.


The university fees debate

October 13, 2010 § Leave a comment

I’ve been following the conversation about university tuition fees, and have had some really interesting debates about it. The coverage in the FT prompted me to write a letter to the editor; but my quarrel wasn’t so much with the ideas in the report, but with the coverage. The question – and it’s a big one – is whether setting up a system in which suppliers can charge whatever they want automatically leads to the creation of a free market.

There must be a lot of theory about this and I’d welcome any recommendations. But there do seem to be some obvious obstacles to a free market in higher education being truly free. Firstly, there are barriers to consumer choice: students usually study at undergraduate level only once, so they can’t withdraw future custom. Secondly, there’s a problem of comparison, since it’s often difficult to tell what an experience will really be like until it’s begun, or to tell what anyone else’s experience is like. Thirdly, the vast majority of undergraduate students are first-time buyers, who will often likely be making their first big independent decision in life.

Should a large part of this decision be cost? Or, more accurately, should a large part of the decision for students from poorer backgrounds be cost, while more privileged students feel more freedom to pick on the basis of quality?

It’s a really big debate, and one which i’ll come back to.

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