Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Trend toward Darwinism in Arts Funding: OpenThread

First was the Bloomberg plan:
Declaring that they had wearied of their annual dance over arts financing, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and the City Council announced yesterday that they would make more money available to arts groups, award it on a merit basis and widen a peer-review process to level the playing field
Now the British plan:
Nearly 200 arts organisations in England have been told that their funding will end from next April in the biggest and most bloody cull since the Arts Council was set up more than 50 years ago.

Pre-Christmas letters from Arts Council England have been dropping on the mats of groups across the arts, telling them they cannot expect to continue receiving public money.

Many organisations will, however, have had good news. Of the 990 bodies which get funding, three-quarters have been told to expect inflation or above rises.
In both places, certain institutions stand to get much more funding than they previously had. And as an opinion piece in the Guardian put it:
The big argument in arts spending today is not whether there is enough public money for the arts but whether that money is spent in the best way. In one sense, of course, there is never enough money. But the arts have had a good spending round for 2008-11, not a bad one. Spending on the arts will increase next year not decrease, while there is now to be more emphasis on arts and culture in schools, not less.
What this really boils down to for arts organizations, as Dominic M. Recchia Jr., chairman of the New York City Council’s Cultural Affairs Committee so bluntly put it, is “It’s a sign that you have to produce.”

Indeed both plans seem to reward excellence and cut off support for organizations just limping along. In a vacuum (i.e., a situation without politics outweighing as objective appraisals of excellence as humanly possible), I support this Darwinian trend. I do see potential peril for organizations devoted to more experimental (i.e., less immediately recognizable as "excellent") efforts. And I'm a bit unsure all this exceptionalism is actually the point of a country's or city's commitment to supporting the arts. But I do see that, when dealing with tax dollars/pounds, that rewarding excellence is more politically expedient, and, so long as the commitment to the arts remains a part of what we agree our taxes should be spent on, I guess overall this is a good move. Besides, I agree that excellence should be rewarded.

But enough of me going on about my opinion. Tell me what you think about my opinion...or your own opinion. ;-)

Labels: arts funding


Blogger Jonathan T. D. Neil said...

Just a rhetorical note: we should probably call this more of a 'free market' approach than a 'Darwinian' one, unless you mean the category of 'excellence' itself to gradually adapt to this more laissez faire landscape, which it very well may.

On the whole this sounds very much like the trend towards 'venture philanthropy' and other kinds of 'strategic giving' with which the non-profit sector as a whole has had to contend. For the arts, one hopes for some equivalent of the Gates Foundation, which would essentially take the place of federal and state governments in the distribution of funds.

12/18/2007 09:28:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Yes, you're right. I guess I jumped ahead to imagine that without this funding those other venues won't survive and so their lack of perceived fittest-ness would lead to their demise. But obviously, that's the only possible outcome.

12/18/2007 10:20:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mispelling in headline: Darwinism, not Darwanism.

12/18/2007 10:56:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...


12/18/2007 10:59:00 AM  
Blogger peter said...

I think more funding is pretty much the key; any means of distributing it will always be flawed by some degree of subjectivity and politics, but more is more, and that's a good thing.

12/18/2007 11:12:00 AM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

I don't understand why using public money to support contemporary art isn't a kind of corporatism. Granted, there are several hundred corporatist projects I would shut down before arts funding (starting with the war in Iraq), but I look at the $400 million that just traded hands at AB/MB and wonder why we worry about the survival of contemporary art in the absence of public funding. I then go on to wonder about my tax dollars going to contemporary museums which use it to inflate the reputations of artists that I may not care for, whose work then becomes the object of frenzied trading at the fairs. To me that looks like a tilted playing field.

Someone wrote a book on my To Be Read pile that addresses this better than I would be able to: Good and Plenty by Tyler Cowen. Has anyone gotten around to seeing what it has to say about this?

12/18/2007 12:18:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

How much does a government hammer cost these days?

Most people learn to make and produce "art" without any government support aside from basic civic services like roads and student loans. The real question is what kinds of activities should be encouraged that are currently undersupported or endangered.

Another real question is what is the difference between seed money and subsidy. Governements should seed. Communities should fish.

The line between seed and subsidy is often blurred by contingent webs of interdependence. Eliminate the conceptual or immaterial brine shrimp at your peril, oh ye Baleen whales. Unless you like chemically saturated farm bread aquaculture. Mmmm surimi.

12/18/2007 06:30:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

Monoculture. Its not such a bad thing. I do support the OTHER, though - so exciting.

12/18/2007 06:32:00 PM  
Blogger peter said...

Z- Your metaphors are mixed and thick as gruel.

F- And tax dollars also go to help those museums conserve, store, exhibit, and research many other works that the market might not deem worthy at any given time. That's the thing; we don't get to choose which specific programs (or illegal oil-grubbing wars) our individual tax dollars fund, so I say more arts funding is a good thing. Absent well-funded museums and not-for-profits, do you really think the free market will do a better job rewarding worthy work?

Ideally some of both leads to the richest field, tilted though it will inevitably be (but not all in one direction.)

12/18/2007 07:46:00 PM  
Blogger Catherine Spaeth said...

"Excellence" is a very empty word, I never use it, it makes me very uneasy, and I care more than most about quality, about establishing criteria.

12/18/2007 08:45:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Guardian article on Uk funding is slightly misleading. A lot of UK funding of arts organisations (and voluntary organisations and charities) comes indirectly through the state-controlled lottery.

The amount of money spent on the lottery is limited - special Olympic lotteries will mean lottery funding will be diverted to funding the London 2012 Olympics. Nobody in the UK arts, charity or voluntary sector is talking about increased funding or about the Olympics lottery diversion being "lazy and wrong."

12/19/2007 07:56:00 AM  
OpenID marshallastor said...

In Los Angeles, which may be the most funding-poor area for the arts in the developed world, things have already gotten pretty Darwinistic. From what I can tell it works - excellence, experimentation, etc... is rewarded. There aren't a lot of organizations I can name in Los Angeles that receive public funds that aren't sufficiently serving the public.

But in a lean and aggressive environment, I think there is one potential peril - the "mono-focus." Right now there has been this huge focus on "serving children", as if they and their education are the sole reason the arts exist. This is largely the result of the ongoing failure and collapse of the LAUSD.

So now to get funding you have to bend your programs to make sure that you're always serving kids (and in a quantifiable, way) to get support. That's leaving arts organizations and programs that are incredibly good and valuable, but don't necessarily serve children, out in the cold. So the downside to a Darwinian funding environment is that it's incredibly sensitive to a narrow focus of funding priorities.

12/19/2007 08:20:00 AM  
Blogger Catherine Spaeth said...

Yes, the education programs have gotten so huge in the museums. Who needs art historians any more? In a museum recently, they were aghast that I planned to spend over two hours in a single exhibit with my small and loyal gang, while they planned for a new busload every 45 minutes.

I'm thinking of my earlier comment about the use of the word excellence - I am grading exams now, and I realize that I DO use that word! It is for teachers and administration. I am willing to say that Artists Space has EXCELLENT programming, and the New York art world would suffer without it. (But I would never say of an artist's work that it is excellent, as that would be to say nothing at all.).

12/19/2007 06:42:00 PM  
Blogger atomicelroy said...

Without excellence things are mediocre.

12/24/2007 11:16:00 PM  

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