It’s no exaggeration to state that many American artists yearn for a time when federal arts funding will match or exceed that of many European countries.
True, last week the U.S. Congress approved a funding increase for the National Endowment for the Arts for the next fiscal year — a bump up to $167.5 million from $155 million this fiscal year, the highest appropriation in 16 years. But by any rational standard — including accounting for inflation over the last 16 years — $167.5 million is rather a paltry sum. In a population of some 300 million, that $.55 per individual.
My colleagues in Washington cringe when I use words like “pathetic” and “invisible” and “embarrassing” to describe the NEA budget, so let’s just say that the funds we have to work with are “not that large.” England is the European country that is the worst public supporter of the arts. Their budget? $900 million. That would translate with our population to an NEA budget of $4.6 billion. That’s not going to happen here in my great grand-kids lifetimes.
Yet, in countries where artists are widely accustomed to public subsidy, the Great Recession has been causing some convulsions. In the U.K., a recent story in the Guardian suggested that the expected election of a Tory government next year could spell all kinds of trouble for cultural funding, and probably worse trouble for the airwaves.
Meanwhile, an important story out of Vancouver, one virtually unreported in the States, offers American artists an opportunity to really think about how the other half has been living, how the grass may not always be greener on the other side of the border.
Please meet David McIntosh, who runs an adventurous theater company in Vancouver called Battery Opera. Here’s his bio:
David McIntosh is a writer, singer, performer, and Artistic Producer of battery opera. Born in Kentucky, trained through transience, the construction industry and taxis, he now lives in Vancouver, BC. His theatre work, art/punk/fuck bands, lounge acts, video and audio work have been performed and shown internationally. His stories have been published in bourgeois fashion magazines as well as a play in the National Theatre Review. He has co-created four or five dance works.
In 1995, he co-founded battery opera with Lee Su-Feh with whom he has been collaborating ever since he was run over while on his bicycle somewhere between Kuantan and Kota Baru.
Since 1989 he has studied martial arts with such teachers as Li Yu Wen, Xu Gong Wei and John Camp. He is currently a student of Bagua Master, Yang Guo Tai.
an intimate, guided tour for an audience of three; a site-specific, roving theatre work that explores the notions of history and evidence in the context of the historic centre of Vancouver. Lives Were Around Meis David’s toast to this city, a libation of place and experience, utilizing the Coroner’s City Examination Room, performances by Adrienne Wong, Paul Ternes, Aleister Murphy and the city itself. Your drink is provided.
This production utilizes text from James Kelman’s novel Translated Accounts.
And Battery Opera, encouraged by the critical reception of the piece, aims to bring Lives Were Around Me back — it will run Nov. 17 and 24, and Dec. 1, 8 and 15. There are five “tours” each evening — for more information, click here.
The problem is this: last summer the arts budget for the province of British Columbia was slashed beyond recognition. This has put Battery Opera into a position in which it must immediately consider how it will sustain itself — if, indeed, the company can be sustained at all. To underscore the point, McIntosh decided to calculate what each ticket would be worth in the absence of public subsidy, a figure that comes to $267.67 in Canadian dollars. Based on the exchange rate of Fri., Nov. 6, that means equivalent tickets in the U.S. would cost $249.43, give or take some pennies. Those are extraordinary prices for anything beyond, say, third row center for Billy Elliot on Broadway. There is a tone about the tack McIntosh is taking: it’s sarcastic, it’s howling, it’s wailing; it’s as if he means to put the funding decisions of local, provincial and national arts officials in stark, Dickensian relief.
But, in an interview with the Clyde Fitch Report, McIntosh suggests that is not his point at all. Indeed, he no longer believes in the utility of public arts funding, and further suggests that Americans should be careful what they wish for.
Before we talk about your funding situation, can you discuss the audience for your work?
I’m interested in an audience that’s willing to take risks and willing to be intimate with me and my “performance.” So I think Lives Were Around Me, for instance, has more to do with the kind of audience I’m trying to interact with.
When I’m making a work, I’m trying to ask a question, to find some possible answers to what mystery is intriguing me. I guess that performance, for me, is the act of asking that question in public and the audience and me risking getting an answer that you or we might not want.
And your government has funded your work and that of Battery Opera.
Yes, I’m a state-funded artist. Most artists who practice in Canada and perform in the theater are to some degree, in one way or another, all subsidized. We have several levels of funding — just as there are different levels of government, meaning municipal, provincial, federal. The provincial government of British Columbia has simply stopped funding the arts. People in the performing arts here make company structures to become charities. The British Columbia Arts Council gives out arts grants on a peer-jury system, and now there is no money allocated. All it has is just the money to pay for the bureaucrats to keep their jobs.
Did you have no warning this was going to happen? Or was it all recession-driven?
It happened very suddenly, mostly because we’re hosting the Vancouver Olympics in 2010 and there is a huge deficit. So the government is in panic mode. This is also fairly consistent with the direction other Western democracies have been going in in terms of state funding of the arts. I think the system that we’re peer-juried is on the way out, where there are allocated taxpayers’ money to councils; that’s being marginalized. What we’ll have left is not transparent.
There is, in the U.K. and more and more of Europe, a tendency toward the state not investing in or outright canceling a peer-jury system like an arts council. And I think, actually, for me the really interesting question now is why the state should fund art at all. We’ve been afraid to even ask that question for the last 20 years: people in the arts don’t want to hear, and don’t want to believe, that perhaps art itself shouldn’t be funded. There’s a shame in the systems we’ve built up. You’ll hear all about community benefit or stimulus or economic impact or social good, but you’ll rarely read the word “art” in any of these funding descriptions. We went to our provincial capital and tried to talk to the bureaucrats who are running the British Columbia Arts Council, and we felt that it’s a good time to have a discussion about why the state should fund art. The question is: What is the state’s contract with the artist?
Yet you’re still charging this enormous sum for each ticket, which makes it clear how much you’ve needed your state subsidy in order to make your work.
I’m trying to provoke a reframing of the discussion, not to ask for pity for not funding a show, as I’ll figure out how to make art, regardless of whether I’m funded or not — that’s my reality. Yes, there’s a tendency with the threat of less funding to try to get sympathy from audience, to get them to say, “Gee, this is terrible.” But I am more curious about reframing the discussion to ask: What does this funding do? I can say it helps me make my work, but I could reframe it and say that what funding does it help the public gain access to my work by making it safe for them or easy to find me and easy to partake in for quite a reasonable price. In other words, I think subsidies are subsidizing audience access to art and artists. It’s about society. It’s not about me.
So, then you have to ask the secondary question: Is it worth it? I think artists are afraid the public will say, No, it’s not. But you have to ask the question. When you avoid asking it, you make up all these byproducts of art that you use so as to justify what you’re doing.
How did the funding work?
Well, Canada doesn’t have a history of corporate funding or private philanthropies devoted to the arts too much. So it is a matter of putting together a bunch of different sources. You may write 20, 50, 100 grant proposals a year to make it all work, to patch it all together. With an Arts Council, usually they set up a peer jury — there’s a grants competition and they’ll invite a jury of artistic peers, meaning people who practice or work in that form of art, and they’ll sit down and read all the applications and discuss them and argue about them, and they’ll talk about art, and they’ll ask why this artist is exciting and this one isn’t, and they usually get way more applications than they have the money for — so two out of three might get funding. But who is on the jury is posted, is transparent. These people, whose names you know, have to talk about why they feel a project is artistically supportable or not. And the decisions are made in a room and you know who is making those decision and where the room is. Then there are other government systems in which the applications are solicited but what happens to them isn’t transparent: politicians put money into the pot and whatever goes in goes to their constituents, like political dividends to their party. They’ll fund a festival if it’s in their interest to do so, if it’s what their party supporters would like.
All juries are tainted by an agenda. But with a peer jury and a democratic process, less of a potential exists for taint; in theory, it’s more of an open discussion. Whereas when you apply to an endowment fund or a more corporate-model of a government agency, you have no idea what the discussion is or why it is or isn’t being allocated to you.
You’re accusing the local, provincial and federal governments of Canada of politicizing the arts?
Why we have state funding for the arts in the first place is because of politics. In most Western Europe during the Cold War, there was a value for the government to hold up new work, free speech and democracy, to counterbalance the Bolshoi Ballet or whatever the Communists were creating. There was a vested interest in finding and sustaining a rich, young, dynamic cultural sector. In Canada, too, because of the Quebec separatism movement, some Quebecois were grabbing onto culture as a nationalistic ideal.
But after 25 years or however long it has been since the height of the Cold War, the clarity from the government as to why it funds culture just isn’t there anymore. Instead, it’s habit; politicians wish they could cut it. As the government becomes more and more corporate, taxpayers will more and more assert that they want to get the best dividend from their political party. The idea of just funding art for itself, or because it makes society look good, no longer holds the cache it once did, especially now that there’s no Communist bloc to compare it to.
What about the argument that arts funding is an economic multiplier?
There’s a fallacy there — it’s what happens when you use the language of government to talk about art. To say “Every dollar give us back $1.35” is great. But if you don’t address why art itself is socially valuable, the benefit for a politician to cut arts funding for political gain is greater than the economic impact argument you sold him. The hard question is: If a politician thinks the arts are evil, stupid or useless, why should the state fund it? What is art’s core value?
I foresee a systematic progression away from government allocating taxpayers’ revenues to outside nonpolitical organizations. I mean, not only cutting the arts, but funding for all charities, from kids’ soccer to feeding the poor. There’s a hardcore decision being made that says you’re not going to fund organizations if you can’t control how the money is spent. The corporate model of government is superceding the idea of democracy. It’s a messy discussion and it’s a reaction against the dispersed control of society. My concern is that in making accommodations we’ll miss out: Sometimes the purpose of art is not to provide a service, not to have economic impact, not even to be entertaining, but to interrogate and be uncomfortable.
So what happens in Vancouver now? It’s supposed to be one of the great arts cities in Canada.
People are struggling. The arts cuts were retroactive, so a lot of people immediately went to huge deficits. Already a couple of galleries have already folded, and some theater companies will fold or people will cut back on programming. We’ve made all these structure with all these theaters. Actors, singers, performers — they’ll all move somewhere else and Vancouver will lose their talent.
But the big institutions will be saved, thanks to board members who are People That Matter. The big provincial theater will survive because they provide a middle-class product that’s still important for cities to have for some reason. And we’ll be doing some protests to try to make ourselves some art.
Editor’s Note: This video is a good illustration of McIntosh’s project: