Who Should Fund the Arts?

First of all let me say, that I am an avid patron of the arts. I attend several pieces of theatre in a year and several musical performances as well. I believe a vibrant arts scene is crucial to the well being of any city. In short, culture matters for me personally and for society in general. Not surprisingly, I feel it should be supported and encouraged as it is so beneficial to all of us. Where I disagree with many in the community is how I believe these artistic endeavours should be supported. To be more precise, I feel that public government funding might not be necessary and may actually cause harm to the vibrancy of the scene.

I am an optimist and because I am also a patron, I am fully aware that if the product is a good one, well promoted, and skillfully marketed it will be successful. By this I mean it will be able to cover all its costs and make a profit. Many people attracted to working in the arts seem to have an aversion for learning math, marketing, accounting etc. There seems to be a persistent conscious or unconscious belief that if you are not struggling you have somehow sold out and aren’t a real artist. This is unfortunate, as it is these skills that will allow the arts to be successful and fully self-sustaining. They are a necessity. Marketing and promotion and designing new business models (with the arts in mind) are all highly creative tasks. Artists are very creative people and so if they applied their creativity in this direction as well just imagine the benefit for all.

Alternatively, filling out government applications is not very creative at all and creating art that will fit Government criteria seems very limiting. This is currently embraced though by the current producers of art because they feel without public funding they will not survive. We have a system in place because of this phenomenon where art is created by and for bureaucrats. In either system, the cream will rise to the top.

By encouraging creativity in all aspects of the arts especially the business and marketing aspects I would argue that ultimately the patrons/public will pick winners more often than Governments will. Then we will have a truly vibrant and influential scene that is the envy of the world.

Any thoughts?

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3 responses to “Who Should Fund the Arts?

  1. There is much that you say here that has merit and a good way to start a useful discussion.

    I think it is worth pointing out that your remarks apply to all enterprises and not only arts-related enterprises.

    Government funding in any industry can stifle certain kinds of innovation, however, this isn’t because the funding comes from a government. It is because it comes from an organization whose employees have little incentive to always pick winners. A public servant receives his or her salary whether or not she actually identifies more winners than losers. The same could be said of large private funding agencies or corporations (AIG, I’m looking in your direction.) So, in theory, well meaning public servants could do a good job picking winners — and sometimes do — they just have less incentive to do so.

    It also seems pretty inefficient. Why are consumers shifting tax dollars to governments to spend on their behalf when it would make a lot more sense for them to directly fund the arts with their consumption habits. And, it is at this point, some snobs in the arts community may turn up and suggest the average consumer isn’t in a position to judge art for themselves. Often, this is the implicit motivation for top-down approaches to arts funding.

    Having said that, we as a country have decided it is the job of government to subsidize some industries and not others and, from that perspective, the arts are as deserving as any other — maybe more so in terms of return for dollar invested.

  2. Congratulations on being my first commenter and thank you for taking the time to respond. I will have to chew on what you say here. I wonder if in most cases I would be against government subsidies?

    I think I am when it regards industries. Health care, a basic income plan, education all these things I believe should be government funded.

    As an aside, I think the Canadian content rules
    for radio helped musicians gain an audience in
    they wouldn’t have otherwise. This is a form of government intervention. I guess it’s the stick rather than the carrot though.

  3. Canadian content rules should have helped Canadian musicians but it seems it only helps Nickleback now.

    As for arts funding, their are so many rules to get a grant it is nearly impossible now for struggling artists. I applied for a grant and the rule that got me was you have to have had art shown in galleries for two years. Sort of a problem for an animation graduate who wanted to illustrate a book.

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