Monday 4 October 2010

Who ‘deserves’ to be funded? (II) Some conclusions

The relationship of many people with the cultural sector, perhaps of the majority, is the one described by John Holden, in page 32 of his text Capturing Cultural Value, as 'non-use values'. That is, they appreciate the fact that it exists (existence value), regardless of using it or not; they keep open the possibility of using it in the future, although they do not use it in the present (option value); they think it is important to bequeath something to future generations (bequest value).

Thus, while I was reading a series of
texts on the value of culture and its funding, I kept asking myself: does it make sense to continue focusing the debate on how to prove the value of culture? Is this what we need to convince people – audiences and non-audiences, politicians, sponsors-, of the ‘value of culture’? Who´s questioning it?

Culture has an intrinsic value, largely intangible, unmeasurable. Culture touches us, marvels us, make us grow as people, help us become more tolerant and demanding, less ignorant and arrogant. It makes us think about ourselves and the world. Each one of us lives this relationship in a very personal way; and each one of us can speak for themselves. These testimonies, many times recorded, are not exactly a ‘proof’, but they help us understand, and show others, how the cultural offer is received, understood and felt.

When discussing cultural funding, rarely do we use this kind of arguments. Because they are not easy to ‘prove’ and because they do not seem to be sufficient. They are not the expected indicators. In the meantime, in our ‘apology’ we often refer to the results of culture´s ‘collateral effects’, that is the ones related to economy, urban regeneration, social and health problems, etc. These exist and have already been proved in various reports.

It seems to me, though, that we shouldn´t be evaluating culture in general, and the arts in particular, based on these indicators. Monitoring these results is the job of the agents who represent each one of those sectors, which interact with the cultural sector because they find the interaction to be beneficial. I think that the cultural sector should concentrate on proving that it aims and manages to create bridges with the other sectors, so that its offer can be more promoted, more accessible and more ‘used’, resulting in more and more people getting in touch with its intrinsic value – the one that is hard to prove and measure, but which each person feels and understands, in his/her own way, when experiencing it. In my opinion, it is in these terms that the value of the cultural sector should be debated and evaluated. And it is also based on these terms that funding criteria should be established.

When considering the distribution of money, it seems to me that, generally speaking, we could identify three types of beneficiaries: artists who work individually, who produce; artists with a supporting structure; cultural institutions.

The job of the artists is to create; to create art of excellence. And the State should guarantee the conditions for that to happen. Artists do not create because it is beneficial for the society. They create because this is their way of breathing, of communicating. It is not up to them to prove that their art helps to solve health or social or other problems. The decision to fund them should be based on the quality of their work. Nevertheless, it seems legitimate to me to expect that an artist financed by the State would be open for collaborating with the mediators (education, outreach, communications staff), who aim to open the way for the public to come to the encounter with his/her art. Audiences, politicians, sponsors find it difficult to attribute value to something they don´t know it exists or something that looks strange to them, incomprehensible, and, thus, apparently useless and at times frightening.

In this context, we should pay particular attention to the fear and discomfort the words ‘contemporary art’ exercise on people. Noone protests against the funding of museums, companies with classical repertories, artists whose work does not defy the established canons… These are proposals the importance of which the general public accepts, even if they never use them. On the other hand, people´s relationship with experimental contemporary art, the art that aims to question the canons, to create new ways of looking at ourselves and the world, is less peaceful. Why? Because the majority of the people do not possess the necessary tools in order to be able to attribute value and importance to it. Apart from the obligation to guarantee the conditions so that this art cab happen, there is another obligation: to ‘educate’ the public so that it can learn to appreciate it (and then accept it or discard it), to give them the necessary tools in order to discover and explore it. And this cannot happen without the artist´s collaboration.

In what concerns the structures supporting an artist or the companies or cultural institutions in general (museums, galleries, cultural centres, performance halls), I am not at all uncomfortable with the idea of setting objectives (some common to all and some specific, decided by the funder and the cultural organization, according to its mission – see
post on the establishment of objectives in the funding agreements between british museums and the government). It seems legitimate to me that the decision to fund gives priority to those interested in pursuing those objectives. If we value the establishment of education departments or the establishment of a relationship with under-represented target-audiences, should priority be given to those who aim to follow that direction? If we value the elimination of physical barriers, so that disabled citizens may enjoy the cultural offer, wouldn´t it be legitimate to expect that publicly funded institutions provide access to them? Just to give two examples.

I believe that development can only be achieved with the establishment of concrete and measurable objectives, in the medium and long term. This is how we can manage to eliminate, little by little, the barriers of access to culture - mental, physical and financial. This is not about the value of culture, it is about access to it.

These and other issued will be discussed on the 6th of October in a debate that aims to provoke and is entitled Just what are the arts good for?”, organized by the Institute of Ideas in partnership with Culturgest.

Note on the 6th of October:
Being this a very relevant issue for the cultural sector, it is being discussed in various forums in many countries. Artsblog published today the post Proving what we know is true, that informs us of a study that is going to be undertaken by Theatre Bay Area with the objective to create a service that will allow them to quantify the intrinsic impact of their work. More information on this here.

Finally, it´s worth reading an article by Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate and one of the most influential people in the british cultural sector, published in the Guardian on the 5th of October and entitled A blitzkrieg on the arts. Here´s an excerpt that I consider fundamental should we really wish to change the terms of the debate: "With the ruthlessness of a blitzkrieg the coalition is threatening the stability of an entire system for cultural provision that has been built up by successive Conservative and Labour governments: a mixed economy of public and private support that has made Britain a civilised place to live, where all have an opportunity to enjoy the arts or celebrate our heritage, and have been doing so in increasing numbers."

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