State of the arts (funding)

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Arts Council Funding for Black and Minorty Ethnic (BME) Communities in the UK

In 1976 Naseem Khan had produced a report, The Arts Britain Ignores, for the Arts Council, which showed the breadth of ethnic minority community arts projects that existed without any structural or financial support from the Arts Council, but which also had little impact or exposure outside their immediate community. Following the report, recommendations were made and the next ten years saw increased engagement from the system. One of these devices was the principle that arts organisations must allocate a minimum of 4% of their budgets to ethnic or black arts, which matched the percentage of the ethnic minority population in Britain at the time.

Naseem Khan in 2005 reflected on the aforementioned report, and the changes throughout the 1980s based her recommendations,

"20 years on, the legacy of that energy is so very slight. Looking for the artists, the galleries, the companies, one must admit the field is very poor. It is hard not to reach the conclusion that policy in the 1980s failed black British arts and artists."

The policy changes may have appeared significant, but were in effect superficial. Whatever progress was made in terms of representation was not matched by the culture and structure of the funding bodies or the institutions they support.

A further ten years on from Khan's comments, state funding for the arts in the UK is increasingly unreliable, with smaller organisations, particularly culturally specific institutions, bearing the brunt of government cuts.

A Guardian report from 2011 shows that just 57 of 650 black or minority ethnic (BME) organisations were welcomed into the Arts Council's national portfolio (NPO) roster, down from the 74 that previously existed as regularly funded organisations (RFOs). Statistics that are most widely available are for performing arts, but the visual arts are almost certainly experiencing the same losses, if not more severe, and this is within a field that is notorious for struggling to engage with black and minority communities.

The recent closures of the Africa Centre in 2012 and Iniva in 2015 as physical, bricks & mortar spaces are devastating blows to the precarious position of black visual arts organisations, and the lack of transparency around the reasons why they were unable to maintain their funding begs the question of reliability and responsibility.

Art critic Morgan Quantaince has written in detail about Iniva's closure:

"In July of this year the Institute of International Visual Arts (Iniva) sent a group email to associates with what was received by many as sad and shocking news. ‘Colleagues and partners,’ it opened, ‘we wanted to be in touch to let you know Iniva’s position following last week’s announcement by Arts Council England.’ Defeatist, flat and oddly conciliatory in tone, the message was that, following a 43.3% slash off Iniva’s National Portfolio Organisation grant in 2012/13, ACE had decided on a further 62.3% cut this time around, effectively reducing Iniva’s 2015/18 allocation from £1,762,486 to £685,032 – that is, £228,344 a year. Consequently, Iniva will cede management of Rivington Place (the organisation’s £7.66m purpose-built premises completed in 2007 thanks to a £5.97m contribution of ACE capital funds) to the building’s other NPO occupants – and recent recipients of a 96% grant hike – Autograph ABP (the Association of Black Photographers). Furthermore, Iniva will have to vacate the building by April 2015 and has been advised to return to its former status as an itinerant agency."

Whose responsbility is it anyway?

Historically, Europe has experienced high levels of government funding for art and culture in comparison with the United States. For example, the most recent comparative study by the Arts Council of England shows that in 1994, cultural institutions in France received $56.78 per capita from the French state, almost ten times that spent by the American government. This can be attributed in part to the laissez-faire philosophy in the US, which minimises government intervention into economic matters. Arguably, Europe’s long history of royal or noble patronage of the arts has created a high value on the retention of cultural property and national heritage, which was subsequently taken on by the state.

State support not only relieves institutions from the time consuming and distracting task of fundraising, but can also offer reliability that allows for long-term planning. This stability, however, comes into question during times of public austerity when the availability of resources may not allow for an adequate level of growth. In such cases, private funding offers the ability to diversify sources of income, which is arguably more stable. In addition to this, advocates claim it spreads out the power over arts policy, which in Europe is concentrated in government agencies. Whether or not this is accurate is highly contested. Both public and private sources of funding have the potential to influence artistic policy, whether through direct action, or more subtle means.

In the UK, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, grants for the arts must pass through semi-independent councils, as explained by economist Harry Hillman-Chartrand,

"The government determines how much aggregate support to provide, but not which organisations or artists should receive support. The council is composed of a board of trustees appointed by the government. Trustees are expected to fulfil their grant-giving duties independent of the day-today interests of the party in power. Granting decisions are generally made by the council on the advice of professional artists working through a system of evaluation. The policy dynamic tends to be evolutionary, responding to changing forms and styles of art as expressed by the community."

Trust and transparency are crucial to museums in terms of public perception. Squabbles over finance only serve to distract from the cultural and educational role of museums, and the artworks they display. However, considering the current global economic crisis, it is unlikely that there will be any easy resolution to the question of where arts funding will come from.

Andrea Fraser, in her essay L’1%, C’EST MOI for the 2012 Whitney Biennial, notes that increasing inequality, with ‘steeply increasing top incomes set off an equally steep inflation in the goods and services associated with affluence’ , art and antiquities being included in this category. As a result, professional art supporting groups, such as museums and other cultural institutions, are effectively priced out of the market. In combination with the decline in public funding for the arts, a heavy reliance on private donors, sponsors, collectors and dealers will be inevitable, in order to maintain any level of participation within the art industry. Given the case studies cited in this paper, it is difficult to argue with Fraser when she proclaims that ‘politics in the art world is largely a politics of envy and guilt, or of self-interest generalized in the name of a narrowly conceived and privileged form of autonomy.’ However I disagree with her assertion that the European system, with more direct public subsidy, is necessarily a more desirable option. In my view, the problem is not with the source of funding, but the conflict of interests as a result. Indeed, it appears that there is already a movement within European institutions towards the US model, such as the recent decision by the Museum Ethnographers Group to no longer exclude individuals with commercial interests in ethnographic objects from membership.

Once considered autonomous gatekeepers of knowledge, museums now have a responsibility to answer to the needs of a highly demanding public, and in this information age, to exhibit transparency in their dealings, both financial and creative.

  • Naseem Khan, “Choices for Black Arts in Britain over Thirty Years,” Shades of Black: Assembling Black Arts in 1980s Britain, ed. David A Bailey, Ian Baucom & Sonia Boyce (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005)
  • James Heilburn and Charles M Gray (eds), The Economics of Art & Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001)
  • Harry Hillman Chartrand and Claire McCaughey, “The Arm’s Length Principle and the Arts: An International Perspective: Past Present and Future,” qtd in Heilburn and Gray, The Economics of Art & Culture
  • Andrea Fraser, “L’1% C’EST MOI,” Whitney Museum of American Art. 31 January 2013
  • Minutes, Annual General Meeting, Museum Ethnographers Group, 17 April 2012