Kona’s column 8: Brace for impact

May 5, 2010

Despite months of havering by papers and pollsters over the UK General Election outcome, one thing’s never been in doubt:  all parties have been preparing the ground for a post-election season of harsh austerity “for the good of the nation”.  Dire prognostications are, of course, a great pre-governmental tactic (once in power, trim fewer corners than you’d darkly hinted you might have to, and reap the PR benefit), but financial realities such as a record budget deficit lend a certain credibility to all these forecasts of gloom.

In any “financial crisis”, whatever the political stripe (or stripes) of the government, funding for the arts is always going to be a soft target for cuts.  Our party-politics democracy is by its nature soundbite-ist and short-termist, and it’s hard to make a populist case for ballet over benefits, experimental art installations over semi-experimental cancer drugs, or poetry over primary teachers – particularly with the tabloids dangling spectral outraged headlines over your party like an ink-stained sword of Damocles.

Just as predictable as the arts funding cuts is the responding swell of outrage that emanates from the arts world.  Sometimes this is well-reasoned and clearly articulated, but sometimes it’s freighted with as much knee-jerk, woolly-headed hyper-indignation as any manipulative tabloid news story.  Getting hysterical is counterproductive;  in the face of inevitable budget-trimming, simply shouting “no cuts for the arts!” (or, more cynically, “no cuts for my art!”) is neither persuasive nor particularly constructive.

Of necessity, politicians have mastered the conjurer’s art of misdirection, and will always portray arts funding as being in direct competition with popular causes such as education funding or the “cash-strapped NHS”: in other words, “more rural music programs equals less medicine”.  (Think about it:  have you ever heard a politician calling for reduced arts funding because it’s robbing much-needed resources from Trident?)  When the cuts are outlined – as they will be – the response from the arts world needs to be equally savvy, and suitably pragmatic.

Of course, it’s easy to moralise about arts funding without actually sticking any pegs in the ground yourself.  I must confess to having mixed feelings on the subject of whether arts funding is always a good use of public money. On the one hand, any completed funding-round usually seems to include at least a sprinkling of arguably self-indulgent fripperies that we could probably survive without (though one’s perspective on which projects are dispensable no doubt varies with one’s own pet art-form….)   On the other hand, having given up a “sensible” academic IT job in favour of being a freelance poet – and having watched my income plummet by more than 95% as a result – I have a realistic perspective on the economic difficulties facing creative practitioners in art-forms that lie outside of mass-consumer culture.

Any suggestion about funding priorities in the arts is bound to be controversial, but I’d like to put in an early vote for arts programs that simultaneously support both creative practitioners and audience development, and that work on a matched-funds basis.  A prime example is the Scottish Book Trust’s Live Literature fund.  The LLF provides matched funding to all kinds of organisations in support of literature-related public events (readings, school visits, workshops and so on);  the organisation and the LLF pay an equal share of the fixed performer’s fee of £150, and the LLF covers the performer’s travel and subsistence expenses – important in a country like Scotland, where geographical remoteness might otherwise be an insurmountable obstacle for even the most proactive local arts organisers.

I’m in favour of dual-purpose funding because it supports the arts both directly (by paying fees to artists) and indirectly (by supporting activities that help artists build a future audience, both for their own work and potentially for the work of others; see “Do come in” for more thoughts about poetry audience development.)  Any single future “audience pound” that is brought into the arts in this way is another pound that doesn’t have to come from grant money – and that moves the art-form another pound closer to (or further into) self-sustainability.

Similarly, I’m in favour of matched funds because they reward the enthusiasm and get-up-and-go of the event organisers, who’ve been willing to put some “skin in the game” and generate funds of their own.  As politicians will no doubt argue, many of these energetic, inspiring individuals and organisations might well continue to support the arts without the benefit of external grants – but the grants help them do what they do more frequently, or more widely, or on a bigger scale.  In times of funding austerity, the efforts of these motivated arts enthusiasts is invaluable in keeping the arts alive in our communities; supporting and encouraging them is a no-brainer, providing an excellent bang for the funding buck.

Whatever else happens on the political front, it seems fairly certain that the arts are in for a period of turbulence and uncertainty (with the situation here in Scotland being further complicated by the still-in-development status of Creative Scotland, the overarching new Arts body.) To acknowledge that funding cuts are inevitable, and will have to be absorbed, isn’t defeatist, and nor is it a form of bowing-down to philistinism; it’s simply a pragmatic recognition of the rough new territory we’re going to find ourselves in.  We can only improve the situation by having our priorities clear at the outset.

How do you think arts funding should be prioritised over the next few years? Tell us about it in the comments.

Kona Macphee is a UK-born, Australian-bred poet now living and working in Scotland.This column is the start of a monthly feature. She is facilitating the Poetry Society Poetry Surgeries. There will be further batch of sessions here in the library in July and October. You can also hear Kona on the SPL podcast ‘Witching Hour’and  follow her on Twitter.

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