Public funding versus artistic freedom: are they mutually exclusive?

This year’s Edinburgh Festival opened with a typically thoughtful and provocative speech from the playwright Mark Ravenhill, about the relationship between the artist and society, and whether, to the truly adventurous spirit, public investment might prove as much a restriction as a security.

It’s an important debate, because artists have always had a complex relationship with their sponsors. The public has never paid the full price of art: the true cost has been born by the state, or church, or some patron, but mostly by the artists themselves, who make sacrifices to learn their craft and pursue their art. Such privations are only partly compensated by critical and public acclaim - and rarely by great riches. Public funding is part of an effort to provide an overall framework within which artists can develop their talent, practice their art - and simply live.

Ravenhill makes the point that artists and organisations in receipt of funding can be obliged to do some paperwork. It is true that public accountability and transparency requires we ensure investment is applied judiciously, fairly and in a way we can justify, but, glancing down the list of great artistic patrons, it is on the whole safer to take Arts Council support than say, money from the Borgias or other Renaissance patrons. Michelangelo himself, commissioned to paint the Sistine Chapel by his patron and tormentor Pope Julius II, was beaten with a stick when he refused to give his Holiness a completion date, which is not part of the training we give our relationship managers.

He mentions targets and the previous Labour administration – and it is true that after 1997 all kinds of targets were introduced across Whitehall departments, including the Department of Culture. When I became head of Arts, I began asking why, and so did the then Secretary of State, Tessa Jowell.  Why, we asked, can we only describe the arts in terms of things other than what they do? This resulted in the pamphlet ‘Government and the Value of Culture’ which suggested that targets were distorting things and taking attention away from what mattered – the art itself.

This was followed up by James Purnell, whose first speech as Secretary of State called for an end to ‘Targetolatry’ – an invented word that expressed the unnecessary fetishism and use of targets. James said we should instead find new ways of describing what the arts do.  Which is what we’ve been trying to achieve over the years – only asking useful questions and trying to find ways, through intelligent self-assessment and external artistic assessment, of describing what the money goes on, using a language that makes sense.  I could go on about this.  We’ve been doing some more work with arts organisations in Manchester to explore this further, which I hope we’ll share more widely soon.  

Bits of Ravenhill’s speech were quoted out of context in broadsheets to suggest he believes there is an unhealthy relationship between government and the arts and that he would welcome the freedom resulting from the removal of public funding.  In fact, this was only one scenario he discussed; elsewhere he talked about evolving a “full blooded, concerted defence of public money in the arts.” There is certainly no cosy relationship between the government and the cultural sector; there is a lively debate, during which the value of the arts is discussed in its totality, and the principle is observed that funding is distributed at ‘arm’s length.’

Picking up on Ravenhill's speech, a recent Sunday Telegraph article didn't present the full extent of cuts to our funding from government. It has been cut in real terms by 35% since 2010. The Lottery money we receive only complements our Grant in Aid, but does not replace it; that was never the purpose of Lottery funds, which are not applied to the same sorts of projects. 

So clearly we have to do more with less; but we would not want anything other than the mixed economy for the arts that we have. States that have funded the totality of the arts sometimes expect the right to interfere in artistic decisions but we do not. We may ask for the art we fund to be seen by as many people as possible, and we seek to spread the opportunity for talent to thrive and for work to be seen by a greater spread of people, but is that such a Faustian bargain? Equally, to make all artists wholly reliant on the market would squeeze them out of public life altogether, and potentially leave them vulnerable to the whims or prejudices of a powerful patron. Our system is pretty finely balanced – we need to make sure it stays that way.

As Ravenhill observed in his speech, democracies are ‘incredibly hard work’ for the artist, and these days, incredibly expensive too. For example, it is impossible to recreate a penurious Bohemia in parts of sleekly modern London. Artists are priced out, even though it is through their efforts that our cities have had their inner life restored. Look at London - Chelsea, Camden, Notting Hill, Shoreditch, Hoxton, Hackney and Dalston. In the 1970s, we feared our capital was dying as people fled; now it is crammed. Over the years it has been artisans and artists, and the diverse communities they co-exist with, who have helped rejuvenate our cities, only to find that when their art becomes fashion, their theatres, workshops, galleries and murals add value to an area that others will benefit from financially.

Today, it is true as Ravenhill says, that we need our artists to be free more than ever; but we also need public investment more than ever. It provides a bedrock for our arts organisations, and a lifeline for our artists, so that they can have spaces to work and live and the opportunity to surprise, delight and shock us. Our funding does not yet require their souls in exchange. They already give us more than enough through their talent and hard work, and rarely directly reap the benefits that the wider economy does - to the tune of some £5.9 billion a year. In England, we hope that our artists will, as Ravenhill wishes, pursue the truth, and be “idealistic, irrational, counter-intuitive, disruptive, naughty.” And no, we won’t beat them for it. Not even if they ask.

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