Reforming Arts Funding

Saying this won’t make me very popular, but I’m growing tired of rants about arts funding, or the lack of same.

Don’t get me wrong. I think that in a just world the state and/or other large funding bodies would spend real money on the arts: from educating, nurturing and supporting emerging artists to making sure people of all backgrounds have affordable access to the arts. The arts are not just about entertainment, not just about keeping creative people in employment, but about emotional and spiritual health, something we can ill afford to ignore.

But today I’m not out to justify the existence of the creative sector, or composed a reasoned plea for more funding. Instead I want to examine the reasons the funding situation is currently so dire, and what we can do about it.

First of all, I think it’s important to understand that arts funding has always been hard to come by. Creative people have always had to scrape around for bits of work, take “survival” jobs in related or unrelated sectors, and put in years of work before seeing any financial return on their time. There are exceptions, both in terms of very gifted individuals with a certain amount of pre-existing privilege, and in terms of socioeconomic conditions, but they are very much exceptions. Beethoven taught to make ends meet; Bach took church jobs or court jobs; Mozart had patrons but his finances were a mess desipte starting out as a child prodigy. Haydn wrote the ‘Farewell’ Symphony as a sort of polite protest when his royal patrons arbitrarily decided to keep the musicians on in Esterhazy longer than their original contract stipulated, leaving the players in the position of not having seen their families all summer (as well as being late for any work they had lined up for their return); clearly this was not an environment in which they had the option of just finding other work. More recently, Pratchett was a jobbing journalist before writing the Discworld books, and I know hardly any solvent professional musicians who do not also teach. The majority of people never have a “big break” but just keep creating and creating, soemtimes doing well, sometimes not so well, and with a running start and a following wind we might make a decent middle-class income by the end of our career. (Don’t ask me about retirement.)

Art is work, and artists should be paid: not just enough to cover the costs of making the art, but enough to live on. So should everyone. But for the vast majority of creative people throughout history this has not been the case, and I think it’s unrealistic to be surprised that it still isn’t.

That said, while the act of getting over oneself and getting a day job can be an important step on the road to becoming a solvent artist, I don’t think “get a real job!” is a useful response. There aren’t exactly a whole bunch of jobs around at the moment; and those that exist require ever more flexibility in terms of location and hours, ever more skill and dedication. It’s a lot harder now to combine waiting tables and gigging; it’s harder to live somewhere that doesn’t have a stupid commute, and that has studio space or somewhere to rehearse; it’s harder to build up a class of piano students. The economy being bad affects artists just as much as it affects anyone else, or perhaps more. Our existence was already marginal, and there was already the expectation that we would work for the love of it rather than for money. Unfortunately, loving your work doesn’t magically result in having enough money in your bank account to keep the wolf from the door, but in the current economic climate, neither does scrubbing floors, changing bedsheets or wrangling spreadsheets.
The reality is that holders of concentrated wealth and power view the arts as an optional extra: a status symbol to hang on the wall or play in the sitting room, perhaps, an enjoyable diversion, to be sure, but ultimately optional: not a priority in the same way as food, shelter, and the pursuit of further wealth and power. Oh, we cannot live on bread alone, but that won’t stop the rich using “basic” expenses as an excuse to avoid spending on the arts; and the fallacy of stockpiling material wealth being more important than sharing transcendence with those around us is not limited just to those who consider themselves wealthy.

I do think there is another way forward. It isn’t easy, and it can be counter-intuitive. In the previous paragraph I mentioned concentrated wealth and power. I don’t think that’s the only sort of wealth, the only sort of power, any more. Oh, there are economies of scale, to be sure. There is a certain security to be found in the status quo. But the model of concentrating and maximising wealth and power also comes with severe limitations. I think most of the problems in arts funding are in fact due to the intrinsic disadvantages of a system which prioritises competition over cooperation, and the concentration of wealth and control over sharing them. This is bad for humanity, not just bad for arts funding!

What’s this other way forward, then? I don’t know all the details, but it boils down to this: if the status quo isn’t working, try something else…

For me, that means devolving power rather than hoarding it. It means putting my money where my mouth is and supporting other creative endeavors, whether that’s financially or in terms of recommendations, feedback or encouragement. It means doing work without always getting paid, not for “exposure” or with expectation of a return in future but because doing so allows me to make a contribution to the common good. It means trying to do business in a way that discourages monopoly and encourages sharing.

I’m not actually very good at any of this yet. I’m still learning. I take risks: small ones at first, usually, because not everything works out. I could definitely do more to support other artists; I’m working on it. But sometimes it does work.

In the long run, maybe my strategy won’t lead to a decent middle-class income. Maybe this is as good as it gets.

If I keep following my own strategy for making music and I am never paid another penny, I will still have contributed good music to a common body of work, accessible now instead of decades after my death. I will still have introduced friends to music they might not otherwise have heard. I will still have helped build, in some small way, a little tiny community where sharing is more highly regarded than profit.

I can’t ask for greater than that.