Forget the State; and have a better story

By Brian Newman, consultant, Sub-Genre Media
I disagree very much with Bill Osborne's comments that have been mentioned here that "In reality, our lack of public arts funding is a much more important issue and has a far worse effect on our cultural lives than any threats to Net neutrality. It's strange how silent you policy folks are about that." This is completely wrong.

Yes, it would be great to have more public funding for the arts and it is one important policy issue. I've shown up to advocate on behalf of this at the Federal and State level more times than I care to count, but to me it is practically irrelevant today. The reality is that in my lifetime, this is not going to change for the better, only for the worse. Every government you can point to as funding the arts well is starting to copy the US and cut this funding. We will continue to see this worldwide, and I've had a revolving door of arts, especially media arts, people coming through my office saying "we need to start copying how you do things in America, because our system is disappearing." In the US, the short term economic problems are imperiling even the notion of nonprofits - many states are batting around ideas to end nonprofit status for not just the arts but entire segments of the field. We can advocate until we are blue in the face, but sad to be the one to report - it ain't gonna get better anytime soon.

But this statement is also wrong for other reasons - it won't matter how much public funding for the arts we have if I can no longer find your work online. Or share my own. I'm not saying all art and culture is or should be found online. But, in a society increasingly mediated by technology, it is often the case that if it can't be experienced in some fashion online it doesn't exist to broad swaths of the public. Second, while I am as anti-consumerist as anyone here, I'm not sure if you've noticed, but we've moved on from the church supporting the arts, the patron supporting the arts, the government supporting the arts - we're in a very late-capitalist society and many artists are making their living very much from working with advertising, corporate support, etc and this is only growing. I'm not saying I like it, but that's where things are going/have been for some time. In my sector, we haven't been able to make a film from government support alone for decades, if ever, and successful filmmakers are piecing together their living through for-profit investment, working with major companies and even with brands. They're also connecting directly with their fans, online, and a few are even making a living by working directly with their fans (as Tim mentioned with Jill Sobule, Josh Freese, etc.). To many of these artists, public support would be great, but for now, it's irrelevant to their lives, but take away their Net (or just the freedom they have now) and their careers would be ruined.

So this brings me to Doug's recent post. Doug is correct that we have a greater diversity of creative output than any time previous - at least in our current history. The problem is that this diversity is imperiled by the policy decisions being debated now - and by the architecture, etc being developed. Many of the same things you champion - such as giving away things - might disappear as a result of these battles. It's not a stretch to say that the internet as we know it might go away. Truly. You'll probably still be able to share your indie film with your fans, for free or pay, but you might have to do it at a slower speed, or you might even have to do it on a "darknet." All of this choice is great to me and you and everyone we know...except those of us who are losing control over culture. They have big wallets, and as I say over and over again - they are not aging dinosaurs, they are vicious, blood-sucking beasts hell-bent on keeping their antiquated business models at any cost to society and they will use their power, their money and their influence to keep control of (the media, the art, the culture, insert term here) and they seem to be better at it than any of us.

This is why the policy and advocacy fight remains important even in this age of cultural excess. It's why nonprofits who claim to help artists need to be involved in the fight. They aren't the only ones, and as I've said below, we need to broaden our base - it's not just about nonprofits or the "professional" artist, but about all people's creativity. My parents, to use a simple example, couldn't care less about arts policy. But if you tell them that their grandkid might not be able to keep making machinima mash-ups from his favorite games and share them with his friends online, they will get mad as hell and join our fight. We need to broaden our base and our message or we will fail. Period.

That said, everyone who has said we need to think beyond policy is correct. We are definitely thinking of this too much in "old world" terms. If all we get from this new digital stuff is a fancy Ipad that can download any movie (or performance, etc) ever made and share it with our friends, we'll have failed. As Jaron Lanier argues in his recent book, You are Not a Gadget, we are in danger of lock-in - where the possibilities of the future are diminished by coding them under the rubrics of today. Unless artists are part of this conversation, and are helping to innovate the tools of tomorrow, we will fail. So, I'm not arguing that we shouldn't keep our eye's on all four bullet points that Lessig mentioned in Code. These are all important pieces of the puzzle and they will all add up to a portrait that spells doom if we don't help influence where all this stuff goes.

That to me is why we need to take the offensive, as opposed to defensive, position and start putting out a better story about the possible future(s) of creativity. We need to stop just demanding net neutrality and add demands that go for something even better. While I don't think nonprofits should stop being advocates, I don't think they'll be as effective in the long run as other, newer approaches to the issues. I'm not going to pretend I have the answer to what this might be, but I hope we can start to articulate it together here.

What we've been seeing online lately, is that people can build incredible movements online. They can self-aggregate when given the means, and do get active around a big enough story. Save the Arts doesn't cut it, as Doug mentioned. We need a better story - and I bet we have some, though we never seem to tell our stories well for a bunch of storytellers....I could imagine a pretty cool story being crafted, however, that points out the interconnection of all this great, creative stuff we are doing online, together pro and am- alike, and how that is threatened by some pretty stiff suits. They aren't too popular today, by the way. The story could also point to some possible futures that are threatened - you know, imaginary stuff that people like to dream about (and tell stories about). This story, if told creatively might bring more of us to the cause than (just) the dry policy paper, and if enough of us are telling this story, those in power will have to listen.
July 22, 2010 10:42 AM | | Comments (4) |


Brian, please check this table from “The Council of Europe/ERICarts, Compendium of Cultural Policies and Trends in Europe, 10th edition, 2009” entitled “Total government expenditure on culture per capita (2000-2008).” It is prepared by agencies of the European Union. As the title suggests, they surveyed 36 European countries and give the numbers for yearly public arts funding from 2000 to 2008.

The table shows that government expenditure for the arts went down in only 2 of the 36 countries.

We should remember that the UK is far outside European norms. It is the only country that combines the American and European system.

Here are some articles about how the French government has tried to protect France’s film industry from American domination. Some of them are older, but the dispute has existed for a long while:

One of the key problems is that Hollywood can amass far more capital for productions.

This abstract of an article in the _Columbia Journal of World Business_ entitled “The French film industry: A crisis of art and commerce” sums up the problem well:

“Three decades after ‘New Wave’ directors JeanLuc Godard, François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer captivated the world with a revolutionary style and an uncompromising vision, the French film industry is in a state of crisis. No longer a dominant cinematic force even in its own country, the proud inventors of filmed entertainment sit aghast as Hollywood siphons millions of francs out of its citizens' pockets and lures away the country's promising young talent. At a time when bold new American directors like Quentin Tarantino, Larry Clark and Tom DiCillo are pushing French film out of the art houses where it once reigned, the audience for foreign language features in the United States is graying and not being replenished. Unless French filmmakers switch reels and begin to make movies that the global marketplace demands, the country that produced classic motion pictures like ‘L'Année Dernière à Marienbad,’ ‘Jules et Jim’ and ‘Jean de Florette’ will become just another ancillary market.”
(End of quote.)

Under the circumstances European film-makers are holding on pretty well, but it is interesting that they long faced exactly the same problems with American corporatocracy as we are discussing here.

Hi Bill -
I'm sorry, but if you are quoting any article or report that is pre-Sept 2008 when the economy collapsed then you're quoting irrelevant news. I am not getting caught in some neo-con reporting/spin, rather I am reporting what I am hearing directly from those in the arts in Europe, especially in the UK, where I work often and work with arts and cultural sector extensively. None of this is hearsay, but rather very real reports of budget cuts throughout the sector. Look at Scotland, for example, where the Scottish Screen and Scottish Arts Council have been merged and "redundancies" have been used to trim budgets and any arts admin person will tell you that their budgets will shrink by another 25% under the new measures of the UK Government. I am hearing this from both film and non-film people - traditional craft councils, music, theater, etc. From the mouths of the actual directors of the organizations and from many artists across disciplines.

Or better, just pick up the paper any day of the week and look at the cuts across Europe in all social services. Even their vaunted health care is being cut. I am not saying these are good things, nor am I saying they should look to American for good policy, I'm just relaying the sad truth, and it is very true. Yes, they do better than us, and probably always will, but that doesn't change the fact that what was good in 2004 is now bad in 2010 - 6 whole years and one financial collapse since.

As for the echo chamber - I am speaking about my field in particular because I know it best, but I can point to numerous examples of artists in multiple disciplines using these tools for their art and making a living. Opera is expanding audience by taking it to all those multi-plexes you mention. Avant-garde cellists like Zoe Keating are amassing over 1.3 million followers on Twitter and she's able to fund her album and sell it to her audience, and have a career, without any middle-men. This isn't particular to film.

By the way, you are wrong about film too. First, indie filmmakers aren't able to operate on the margins of those multiplexes and make a living - that game is over. That's why they are copying musicians and other artists and using the web to find their audience. Second, we didn't end their subsidies. Most European nations still have them, and even with cuts they are pretty robust. They fund the new generation of the Fellini's quite well and have kept their artistic culture quite vibrant in film.

I wasn't arguing that they want to embrace our model, but rather that the smart ones are realizing that they must embrace it - because they have no choice due to the cuts in those funds.

I, like you, would welcome more public funding for the arts in the US. I will still advocate for it, as I have often, but that doesn't negate the fact that state and federal budgets will continue to contract for many years and the chances of any political action leading to increased funding is nil. Hell, in states like GA, they are fighting to keep any funding - at all - for the arts. Don't think that's just because they have many neocons in government. It's the economy. And it ain't getting better.

Once again we see the echo chamber that Jean was talking about. The professional worlds of film and classical music could hardly be more different which creates wildy differing views of the world. America probably has around 10,000 movie theaters, but only 5 real opera houses. Indendent film makers can utilize even the margins of this massive infrastructure and be incomparibly better off than a composer who will have viturally no avenue at all for her opera to ever be seen.

Also, Brian’s comment that Europeans are moving toward the American model is dead wrong. This is a trope that perpetuated by free-market neo-cons who want everything privatized. They are flat-out lying, and the European funding stats prove it. (It’s also important to remember that anecdotal comments by European colleagues are generally very unreliable. More on that below. It is important to go to solid scientific sources when looking at national funding stats.

Over the last decade, countless governmental reports confirm that Europeans have held arts funding stable, or have even raised it, and even during the economic downturn caused by the and housing crashes. Britain , for example, doubled arts funding from £198m when the Labour Party came to power in 1997 to £411m in 2004. The reports show that in 2004, French government spending for the arts rose 5.9%, which was three times inflation. The economies of Spain and Ireland have skyrocketed since they entered the European Union. Their per capita increases in arts funding have been phenomenal. Now that they have met with economic problems, they have still held funding as stable as possible. When cuts are made, it has nothing whatsover to do with a desire to imitate Americans.

The reports also show that after the housing crash, the Europeans directed a huge portion of their bailout funds to their state run arts organizations. In the USA by contrast, only 50 million of the 800 billion went to the NEA (1/16,000th of the total.)

In general, there is much more lively discussion and debate in the European press about arts funding so it is fairly easy to document the developments and attitudes. Let me quote a few newspaper articles to illustrate what I am talking about. The first clip is from the BBC’s website, May 24, 2004 and is entitled “London is ‘Classical Music Capitol.’” It argues that public funding actually helps orchestras stay in touch with the public’s musical interests and tastes. And as might interest Brian, the author even addresses public funding and film music.

The LPO had just performed Howard Shore ’s score for Lord of Rings for an audience of more than 3000 people. Timothy Walker, artistic director of the LPO explained how public funding creates a connection with the public: "We have to do great symphonic repertoire. But film music is a great part of our musical life. We are funded by the taxpayer and we have a duty to appeal to as wide an audience as possible." Mr. Walker pointed to London 's "five great orchestras and two opera houses" as proof of the city's musical pre-eminence. " New York has just one symphony orchestra," he said by way of comparison.

(For those who might not know, the orchestras are the London Philharmonic Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Philharmonia, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. London also has two opera houses.)

The article notes that even though the city has five orchestras, the LPO sells about 82% of all tickets for its concerts, and many events are sold out. (No big need for iPods, Twitter, and Indie Rock influenced concerts there.)

Mr. Walker said it would be possible to raise attendance to 90%, but he would be:

"…worried that our program was not adventurous enough. If we program in a conservative way, with great conductors and soloists, we are confident we would sell out the concert hall. With new, edgier work, and younger artists, the risks are higher. Orchestras are very fragile organizations. It is always difficult to balance the commercial and creative aspects of the orchestra."

The article stresses that public funding gives the LPO the freedom to find a reasonable balance between popular and innovative programming.

Helsinki also has five symphony orchestras even though its population is only 565,186. A per capita comparison would give New York City 80 full-time orchestras!!!

Here are some clips from a commentary in the Star Tribune of Minneapolis from April 23, 2004 entitled “Music Education Permeates Finnish Society” written by Kristin Tillotson:

“ Helsinki alone is home to five symphony orchestras. Nationwide, there are 21 more, as well as 12 regional opera companies. At least eight world-class conductors, including the Minnesota Orchestra's Osmo Vanska and the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Esa-Pekka Salonen, were raised and trained in Finland . More than 30 full-time classical composers live and work there.

The article continues:

“How has a nation of 5.2 million people -- a population only slighter greater than the state of Minnesota 's -- produced such a surplus of talent? […] Outstanding music education is the primary reason. But at its source is a national attitude that music is not dessert, but an essential food group for personal, cultural and civic sustenance, and as deserving of government subsidy as health care and schools.”

No mention of imitating the American system. The Star Tribune article continues with a quote of the director of advanced studies at the Sibelius Academy , Osmo Palonen:

“‘[Music] is so ingrained in our culture; there is never a question about the government putting a lot of money into it. This also makes music very democratic here, not just something for the elite.’"

In an article in the Guardian on May 3, 2004, Louise Jury quotes Tessa Jowell, Britain’s Secretary of State for Culture. Ms. Jowell explains the vital role public arts funding plays in the health of cities and the well-being of the public. Her comments are closely related to Bill Ivey’s about creating a sense that the arts are part of the common good of societies:

“‘MPs are waking up to the fact that cities such as Birmingham and Liverpool are being brought to life by culture. Labour must lead from the front in advocating arts as a public good in itself’, she said. ‘There is a parody of culture which is prevalent, that these are issues of interest only to a disconnected elite. But it is the enthusiasm and hunger that people have for culture that is driving this.’

“The arts are not just ‘a pleasurable hinterland’ for the public to fall back on after the ‘important things - work and paying tax’ are done, [Jowell] argues in a 19-page pamphlet.

"‘It is at the heart of what it means to be a fully developed human being. Government should be concerned that so few aspire to it, and has a responsibility to do what it reasonably can to raise the quantity and quality of that aspiration.’"

How different such ideals are from the defeatist and misinformed attitudes regarding public funding in America -- and even among American artists.

The Guardian continues:

“While spending on the arts has doubled since 1997 and scrapping entrance charges to national museums has boosted attendance by millions, some MPs are still inclined to lob the elitism charge at expenditure on opera or orchestras. Arts leaders have felt despair that the Prime Minister has seemed so unwilling to be seen in their museums and theatres. But they will be encouraged that Ms. Jowell says ‘intelligent public subsidy’ is vital if the arts are to take their place at the heart of national life. Audiences will be developed only through ‘determined policy initiatives,’ she says.”

“Determined policy initiatives” that create “intelligent public subsidy.” Again, a big contrast to American views which result in the poverty of our cultural life compared to Europe . The 2004 British government arts budget was 800 million dollars, and thus 30 times higher than the per capita funding of the NEA. (And Britain , by the way, has one of the lowest per capita rates of public funding for the arts in Western Europe .)

Even now with a Tory government reducing budgets in *every* area of government, none seem to be meeting with more resistance toward cuts than arts funding.

An article in the rather conservative Bloomberg News, dated February 2, 2004 mentions that the cultural budget in Italy was cut by 2.5% leaving a sum of 1.97 billion dollars. The Italian government’s per capita cultural spending is thus about 56 times higher than the NEA budget. So when Europeans make cuts, their state funding is still tens of times higher than in the USA, and sometimes even hundreds.

The Bloomberg article also notes that:

“Among European countries, museums fare best in France , where about 1 percent of the national budget is spent on culture each year, and this year's package is up 5.9 percent -- three times inflation -- at 2.79 billion euros.”

The per capita French budget is thus about 80 times the NEA budget. Imagine if one percent of our national budget went to the arts. That would be 24 billion dollars for fiscal year 2007. That’s 172 times higher than the current NEA budget.

Arts funding in Italy was indeed attacked by the Berlusconi government. He was the sole owner of all of Italy ’s private television stations. He attempted to eliminate government involvement in almost all forms of media to increase his monopolistic control. The American model indeed!!! He was finally driven from office because his underhanded financial dealing caused the populace to see him as a common crook. He is now back in power, but his attempts to cut back Italy’s opera houses is being met with very strong resistance and it is unlikely he will have much success. The houses are simply too popular.

Most Europeans remain deeply wary of corporate sponsorship of the arts. Bloomberg News has written some interesting articles about these problems, but I won’t quote them here. The Guardian also addresses this problem in an article by Peter Kennard entitled “Hung out to dry by the sponsors: Art's corporate backers decide what we can see in public spaces”, published December 30, 2003.

This isn’t to say that the Europeans don’t keep an eye on the American scene. In an article from the Deutsche Welle website on February 2, 2005, Gerald Mertens, the director of the German Orchestra Union, noted that, “Orchestras in competitive markets such as Berlin , Munich or the Ruhrpott region in North Rhine-Westphalia will be particularly pressured to distinguish themselves. They have to become more active in documenting their societal value.” [ Munich , for example, has 6 full-time orchestras in a city of 1.2m. And Berlin has three opera houses in a city of about 4m.] Mertens said that while Germany remains the world's No. 1 market for classical music, it lags far behind Britain and especially the US in terms of innovation.

So when continental Europeans look at the American system, one must remember that they are often being merely polite. If only we had this modesty and open-mindedness in our relations with the world. In reality, the German musicians union looks at the American funding system as barbaric and they are viligant in making sure Germany never embraces it because they know it would mean the loss of 80 to 90% of their fulltime, year-round orchestras and opera houses.

So don’t listen to the rather widespread American propaganda that Europeans are abonding their public funding system. The neo-con political agenda of such misinformation is relatively transparent, and such views have plagued our society for decades. We should not despair. Just like the Europeans, with “determined policy initiatives” we can greatly increase our public support for the arts.

I suppose the biggest irony of Brian’s comment is that American hegemony in the film industry has done so much to harm Europe’s which once produced works by people like Fellini, Jean Renoir, Bergman, and De Sica. These were all films supported by state subsidies in one form or another. The American film industry used its long, bloody fists to end those subsidies under free trade agreements. So directors like that are all gone now, and thanks to that American model Brian claims Europeans want to embrace. In reality, a lot of Europeans film-makers are stopping just short of pulling out their rifles.

Leave a comment


This Blog Arts and culture are a cornerstone of American society. But arts and culture workers are often left out of important policy conversations concerning technology and creative rights even though the outcomes will have a profound impact on our world. Is it benign neglect? Or did we... more

This blog is a project of... the Future of Music Coalition, the National Alliance for Art Media + Culture, Fractured Atlas, and more

Our Bloggers We have 22 bloggers taking part in this week's conversation. They are... more

Contact us: Click here to send us an email... more

Recent Comments

William Osborne commented on Forget the State; and have a better story: Brian, please check this table from “The Council of Europe/ERICarts, Compen...

William Osborne commented on Forget the State; and have a better story: Here are some articles about how the French government has tried to protect...

Brian Newman commented on Forget the State; and have a better story: Hi Bill - I'm sorry, but if you are quoting any article or report that is ...

Anonymous commented on Forget the State; and have a better story: Once again we see the echo chamber that Jean was talking about. The profes...

AJ Blogs

AJBlogCentral | rss

About Last Night
Terry Teachout on the arts in New York City
Artful Manager
Andrew Taylor on the business of arts & culture
blog riley
rock culture approximately
critical difference
Laura Collins-Hughes on arts, culture and coverage
Richard Kessler on arts education
Douglas McLennan's blog
Dog Days
Dalouge Smith advocates for the Arts
Art from the American Outback
lies like truth
Chloe Veltman on how culture will save the world
Life's a Pitch
For immediate release: the arts are marketable
Mind the Gap
No genre is the new genre
Performance Monkey
David Jays on theatre and dance
Plain English
Paul Levy measures the Angles
Real Clear Arts
Judith H. Dobrzynski on Culture
Rockwell Matters
John Rockwell on the arts
State of the Art
innovations and impediments in not-for-profit arts
Straight Up |
Jan Herman - arts, media & culture with 'tude

Foot in Mouth
Apollinaire Scherr talks about dance
Seeing Things
Tobi Tobias on dance et al...

Jazz Beyond Jazz
Howard Mandel's freelance Urban Improvisation
Focus on New Orleans. Jazz and Other Sounds
Doug Ramsey on Jazz and other matters...

Out There
Jeff Weinstein's Cultural Mixology
Serious Popcorn
Martha Bayles on Film...

classical music
Creative Destruction
Fresh ideas on building arts communities
The Future of Classical Music?
Greg Sandow performs a book-in-progress
Harvey Sachs on music, and various digressions
Bruce Brubaker on all things Piano
Kyle Gann on music after the fact
Greg Sandow on the future of Classical Music
Slipped Disc
Norman Lebrecht on Shifting Sound Worlds
The Unanswered Question
Joe Horowitz on music

Jerome Weeks on Books
Quick Study
Scott McLemee on books, ideas & trash-culture ephemera

Drama Queen
Wendy Rosenfield: covering drama, onstage and off

Aesthetic Grounds
Public Art, Public Space
Another Bouncing Ball
Regina Hackett takes her Art To Go
John Perreault's art diary
Lee Rosenbaum's Cultural Commentary