How we can benefit from the accelerating dismantling of our cultural machinery

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The process of reduction of 20th century cultural institutions and dismantling of the machinery intensified last week with the publication of the McCarthy report in Ireland declaring open season on challenges to the cultural public sector. Two weeks ago the Arts Council of England announced its proposals to cut 131 staff.  Last week  DCMS forewarned of  the £100m ‘black hole’ in its budget likely to result in mothballing of various capital projects including  Tate Modern, British Museum and BFI. “Let the elite’s building funds dry up. Outside, cultural Britain is flourishingwrote Simons Jenkins in the Guardian.    Comments on the piece by that well known group of Guardian readers – educated, cultured, liberal, leftie etc – more or less all agreed with him.

Over in Ireland the ‘An Bord Snip’ report by Colm McCarthy, signalled the lancing of the unaffordable public sector in Ireland.  McCarthy is looking for savings of some €5.3bn across the board and in the arts and creative industries this includes the abolishment of the Irish Film Board and Culture Ireland as well as reductions in the amount of funding to the Arts Council.  There is also a recommendation to consider the abolishment of the Department of Arts Sports and Tourism in the context of severe reductions in the funding and activities of that Department and as a means to generate additional savings in the cost of Government administration.

Of course the bluntness of the proposals has been greeted by an outcry from those in the arts and creative industries.  At the opening of the new Druid Theatre in Galway Festival last week, Gary Hynes, director of Druid Theatre and Pat Moylan, Chair of the Arts Council spoke up for the arts and the cultural and economic value they generate.  In all the hullaballoo, the cause most worth fighting for is having a Culture Minister at the Cabinet table.  Its less about the money, more about the influence.

No one can be unrealistic about the current economic crisis and the need to reduce public expenditure.  We need to ensure that we preserve the artistic capability to survive the recession. But this does not mean retaining the status quo, either in terms of the arts we subsidise or in terms of the machinery and organisations we retain.

The world has changed with the global economic crisis and climate change.  And is changing fast with the development of the internet.  20th century arts and culture can no longer be regarded as the only creative industries worthy of support.  The creative industries as a sector  includes interactive and digital media and this is where there is the greatest potential for growth, innovation and cultural, social and economic benefit.  Digital media and internet communication has already inspired innovative Iphone Apps, games, web drama and other open source art, photography and music products, services and artefacts.  The platforms encourage personalised experiences and collaboration which are not dependent on travelling to a city to an event at a particular time, which may be free and which are close to carbon neutral.  Interactive games is a sector where the UK and Scotland in particular is a global leader and where public support can deliver significant economic impact.

The internet has also revolutionised the way we can operate businesses – including the cultural agencies which are currently under threat. Many of the costs associated with running these agencies accrue from managing the complex administration systems required pre today’s technological capabilities.

We need to reduce the number, size and cost of public agencies and need to make sure that these public agencies operate expertly, swiftly and efficiently to make strategic interventions across the arts and creative industries, working in partnership with economic agencies.  This is what is proposed for Creative Scotland.

We need to support artists, to nurture talent and to retain core cultural organisations, as centres of excellence in an art form, like national theatres, or as regional creative hubs, providing neutral enabling spaces for creative experiences.  The agencies should delegate or contract out activity and programmes to them instead of running them themselves. We need to get as much of the resources as possible into the arts and creative experiences and reduce the cost of the machinery to do this.

We will need to lose many workers in the arts and culture.  Artists, actors, musicians, writers, dancers, craftspeople, technicians, designers, directors are by nature both freelance and adaptive.  The salaried staff who will be made redundant as the cultural machinery is dismantled are a mixed bag of professionals.  Most of them, administrators, marketers, managers, are passionate about the arts and have a creative and positive approach to work.  While some will stay employed, society could benefit from their skills in other ways.  Most have transferable skills could improve the performance of many other public and private organisations with their creativity and enthusiasm.  Most could also contribute towards creative experiences in their own communities through volunteering in schools and community organisations, as we can presume less and less professional community arts activity and more need to get involved with schools   Many could mentor others. A benefit of a shrinking economy could be a higher valuing of non professionalised arts activities.

Some should transfer their skills to the new creative industries but working not for the ‘boulder’ organisations of the 20th century but as ‘pebbles’, small and independent (as defined by Charles Leadbetter).  Those people are the more entrepreneurial types. Some few will be lucky enough to be made redundant by the public sector and could use their redundancy pay to set up and some are fortunate enough to be supported by independent means.  Others need support in setting up as a small enterprise.  The Arts Council of England and the New Deal of the Mind published last week a report Do it yourself: cultural and creative self-employment in hard times which makes the case for DPW to set up a success to the Enterprise Allowance Scheme of the 80s which supported the establishment of a very significant body of sustainable creative industries.  That’s just what we need now, for many of our young artists and creative practitioners and also for the not so young cultural support worker.

And what of the new streamlined public agencies?  We need the best leaders and creative professionals in these agencies, experts in the arts, culture and creative industries.  There used to be a tradition (and still is in some rare examples) where our top creative people transferred in and out of the cultural agencies and to and from the coalface as artists or entrepreneurs.  We should have fixed term contracts in these agencies just as we do for boards and for artistic directors.

The dismantling of 20th century cultural machinery is inevitable but lets get the best of benefits from our creative workers in new settings.

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