Friday, June 29

on funding for the arts: an international perspective

I'm currently in the UK on a sonic arts residency, and I'm noticing some interesting trends around funding.

First of all, there's an enormous amount of money floating around: £500 million was available last year through Arts Council of England grants, which works out to about £10 per person living in the UK. By comparison, in 2004 Creative New Zealand gave out, in total, $18 million, or about $4.50 per person living in New Zealand, or at today's exchange rates, £1.72. To be fair that doesn't include money paid out through the PACE scheme or through the plain unemployment benefit, which has long been a pillar of support for the New Zealand artist.

It's also worth noting that money is just given out, with no need for a project to present itself as 'self-sustaining'. Artists expect to be paid a living wage out of grant money - a minimum of £175 a day, or a suggested wage of £23,000-£33,000 p/a, which is a decent wage - enough to support a reasonable standard of living or a partner. Artists also expect to fund and purchase all of their materials through grant money - there isn't the expectation that arts projects will be funded by sponsorship.

This ought to do wonders for the art itself. With an artist free to rely on grant money for everything, and without having to worry about any 'practical' issues, they can get fully stuck down into the process of creating art. I have certainly seen some very good art in the few months I have been here, and this is in Birmingham, hardly somewhere well-known for its art scene.

Interestingly, however, artistic culture as a whole can suffer. Living in New Zealand I found artists were often willing to cooperate, to work together to make a project happen, for the love of it more than anything else. My time spent with the Jeff Henderson, Warwick Donald and the rest of the folks who help to keep Happy running in Wellington showed me an organisation surviving (but only just) on enormous amounts of dedication and willpower, all the while keeping a fantastically open policy of accepting pretty much any kind of music- or sound-related artform you could imagine. My research over here in the UK has drawn me to the rather surprising conclusion that there is no equivalent in the UK. Even in London, supposedly a hub of experimental music, I could not find a dedicated venue: there are a few weekly events, in a couple of pubs here and there, but there's nothing like Happy.

Perhaps this is because of the funding situation. With money apparently so readily available, funding coming all from one source, the first question considered when I have discussed any new project with another artist funding. Artists here seem to be implicitly taught to rely on outside sources of funding for projects, and because there are always more artists than funding sources, competition is inevitable. Of course, competition and cooperation don't really go hand-in-hand, so what this essentially means is that no 'serious' artist seems to be willing to consider working with me unless it is at least vaguely going to end up with them receiving money.

This is a little bit foreign to my approach to art-making. I tend to work with what I've got, experimenting with the tools on hand until I have something approaching what I want, and only then start looking for potential funding avenues. This obviously lends itself to casual collaboration, where I ask other people for help without the expectation of pay, with the understanding that they will reciprocate at some stage. Looking at it from another angle, it also pushes networking as an important skill; my cultural capital, as someone who has skills and is willing to share them, becomes my most important asset, being the dominant factor in making my contact details shared amongst other people.

From my experience, many other artists in New Zealand operate along similar lines. The Wellington music scene, of which Happy is a part, is infamously incestuous in this regard: skilled musicians who like to play with different bands end up forming excellent bands full of skillful musicians, who are largely shared with other bands; and the scene as a whole benefits from having many more good bands than would be possible if the musicians did not collaborate in this way.

By contrast the situation here is largely one of guarded ideas, closed creative groups, and active competition. The collective who is hosting my visit, Modulate, operate under the assumption that they are filling a niche in the Birmingham art scene (with sonic art), and are currently running a series of free Sonic Culture Salons, the purpose of which is to bring artists who are interested in or work with sound together on a monthly basis to meet, discuss, present, perform, and exhibit sound- and new media-related project. Despite their clear open policy of providing a service the broader arts community, they have been actively denied assistance in funding applications by some of the other arts groups in Birmingham, with the stated reason being that they are competing for the same pot of money.

So. On the one hand you've got enormous amounts of money, artists being able to spend a long time developing their craft, a financial support system that lasts after for the love of it has run out, and an official endorsement of the idea that art and commercial interests are and should be separate. On the other hand, competition means that artist groups are more closed to one another, leading to stronger, if implicit, hierarchies, which are never that good for a creative culture; and collaboration and collaborative art projects are more difficult to bring about. In short, it's a more traditionally competitive capitalist environment.

To conclude, I'm not really sure whether this is a good thing. My youthful *-ist idealist sides tell me that it isn't, that art should be one of those places where collaboration, mutual support, and cooperation are always the Right Way To Do It; but my more sensible grownup sides are saying, no, it's much better to get paid, and if the broader community suffers well then tough, because that's the kind of world we live in these days.


window said...

interesting post, funding seems to have come up a lot recently, in jim and mary barrs discussion on how much an artist receives in resale, to disclosing CNZ grants to the Audiofoundation mailing list.

as you mentioned, it becomes very fundamental to the whole process - muck around with ideas until i have something that needs funding (NZ) - or plan a detailed project and don't let anything interfere with this (UK).

personally i think nz art/music/ stacks up very well overall, but gets underrated. a classic example being phil dadson, who plays high profile gigs in japan and europe, then gets ignored by all but a niche group here in new zealand.

Karl D.D. Willis said...

I am a little late to comment on this but, yes it is interesting. I think the approach of using what you have available has a very NZ style to it. You can see this historically in the work of Len Lye using offcut film and perhaps the early Flying Nun stuff by the Clean (even their cover art was often black pen on white paper).

I have no idea what goes on with CNZ at all. How they approach funding Electronic/Digital Art I would love to know. I can't help but think that much of it falls between the gaps of art/science practice/research etc...

The British situation could be problematic if the 'funding cart' starts to come before the 'idea horse'. There are no doubt many projects that have been shelved because of being declined for funding, likewise other ones that have gone ahead simply because of access to funding. The question is, which ones are represent the most fertile ideas?

helen said...

in response to karl having no idea how CNZ approaches the funding of electronic/digital arts - the answer is simply that they don't. if you want to apply for funds for a digital art project, you must apply under one of their existing categories (craft, dance, literature, music, theatre, visual arts). there is also the screen innovation fund which can consider some digital art projects. as far as i'm aware there is no specific digital arts advisor within CNZ & i suspect the whole area has ended up in the too-hard-basket. as karl suspects this does mean that digital arts often fall between the gaps, or perhaps don't get funded because there is a lack of knowledge about the digital arts. the funding panels are supposed to be made up of our peers, but i've been trying for some time to encourage people to put themselves forward for nomination to panels & it's bloody hard - everyone is too busy or applying for funds themselves or (like myself) out of the country. all you have to do is download a form from the CNZ web site & nominate yourself, & then maybe you will get selected for a panel & can perhaps add a digital arts perspective ...