Saturday, July 1, 2017

The Two-Edged Sword of Arts Subsidies

I'm not a big fan of Norman Lebrecht whose Slipped Disc site, while often the source of the latest news, tends to resemble a tabloid. But he has an excellent article in The Spectator about just what goes on with the Arts Council of England. It is a case study of the myriad problems with state funding of the arts. Let me pick out a few good examples:
In the past 20 years, the Arts Council has shed most of its ethos. The rot began in 1997 when the incoming Blair regime demanded social reform in exchange for state cash. Arts organisations were ordered to expand education. Subsidy was pegged to compliance. Orchestras had to demonstrate that they and their audiences matched the national demographic in gender, race and sexual orientation. Proof was demanded in triplicate. A request for state funding grew from one sheet of paper to a fat sheaf of boxes, all of which have to be ticked. Managers tell me it can now take three days to complete a repeat application for musical subsidy.
Politics polluted the process. Under Blair, dosh was pumped into Labour’s north-east heartland and drained from the south-west. Gerry Robinson, a Labour donor who had trashed ITV’s best drama department, was made ACE chairman. The Keynesian imperative of nurturing art at grass roots gave way to corporate speak. Expert panels that once doled out grants after case-by-case debate were dissolved. John Major’s Lottery bonanza, intended for arts and sports, was divvied up by Blairites to education, environment, health, heritage and charities.
The latest trend is to give over funding decisions to a computer:
Nowadays, ACE officials are trained in nothing more useful than ensuring all boxes are ticked, all regions represented. After that everyone, good or worse, will have prizes.
Theirs is a job you might think could be done by computer — and that’s exactly what’s about to happen. Some weeks ago, the ACE issued a £2.7 million invitation to tender for ‘a monitoring system that will measure the artistic quality of the work of its National Portfolio Organisations’.
It is the ACE’s largest-ever commission and it has already consumed more than £700,000 in planning the criteria that are being fed into the computer. Some of these ‘core quality metrics’ are infantile beyond belief. They include ‘Challenge: it was thought-provoking’ and ‘Captivation: it was absorbing and held my attention’. Originality is defined as ‘it was ground-breaking’.
This, give me strength, is how decisions are made in 2017, how the arts are funded. Mortal intelligence has been rendered redundant. Computer says yes or no.
What would bar the door against this sort of thing is a real understanding of aesthetic judgement, but that has long been exiled to a far country. Political decision-making and the arts are very uncomfortable bedfellows.

The two-edged sword of the title? On the one hand, large-scale classical music organizations and performances are not and have never been commercially self-supporting. Opera and symphony have always been seriously expensive activities and the only way they could support themselves would be if tickets were a thousand dollars a seat or more. This is rightly seen as being socially undesirable, so they are subsidized by the state so that ticket prices can be within reach of most people. This is a good thing, I think. But the temptation is always for government policy to turn arts subsidies into social engineering and that always has unfortunate consequences as Norman Lebrecht chronicles above.

Here are highlights from the English National Opera's production of Orpheus in the Underworld by Offenbach. Interesting that, on YouTube, every single clip from the ENO is either a brief commercial for a production or, like this one, an audio only clip without visuals. For a non-commercial entity, they guard their output as zealously as any corporate entity.


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