PRINT April 2008


EVER SINCE WORLD WAR II, the arts in England—as elsewhere in Europe—have been generously if variably funded by the government, by means of the Arts Council of Great Britain, which was split into four independent organizations, for England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, in 1994. If not quite the envy of the world, the level of funding provided by Arts Council England has certainly been the envy of America, where investment in the arts is largely a private affair. Whereas the Arts Council will invest £417 million ($836 million) in the arts this year alone, the United States (federal, state, and local governments) will spend about $1.5 billion, although England’s population is one-sixth that of its former colony. Regardless of the relative munificence of public funding for the arts in England, however, the figures belie a fundamental shift in the way the arts are now being underwritten there.

In December 2007, the Arts Council announced the most swingeing set of cuts in its history, effectively canceling its cash flow to 185 arts organizations. A month later, the creative consultancy Arts & Business released figures showing that, as in the previous few years, private contributions to arts funding in England out-stripped public ones in 2007, with a year-to-year rise of 11 percent: This time, the figure was £530 million ($1.1 billion), with approximately half coming from individuals, a quarter from corporations, and another quarter from trusts and foundations. “These are fantastic figures,” New Labour’s minister of culture, Margaret Hodge, is quoted as saying. The sums may indeed be something to marvel at, but the increase in private funding also raises serious issues. When Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth was unveiled at Tate Modern in October 2007, the privately commissioned work generated publicity aplenty for the renowned public institution after members of the public started falling through the cracks that the Colombian artist had incised in the Turbine Hall’s floor. A metaphorical reading no doubt suggested itself to some—especially those concerned about privatization and the increasing spectacularization of art.

The picture of public arts funding in England is complicated. The Arts Council, for example, was actually allocated a $100 million increase in its three-year budget prior to making its cuts, but—apparently responding to government criticism that it is bloated and ineffectual—decided to target spending in a different way. Nevertheless, the public purse is ever more strained by the growing numbers of organizations competing for it, the escalating cost of international exhibitions by major institutions, and distractions such as the vastly overbudget 2012 London Olympics; and England’s publicly funded institutions are progressively finding themselves in new territory. “The Arts Council are pushing all the organizations they fund into 55 percent public funding against 45 percent raised income,” says Jenni Lomax, director of London’s Camden Arts Centre (which has always worked with such a split, and enjoys noncorporate benefactors). “They want us to be self-sustainable and, if possible, sell more work,” adds Robin Klassnik, whose Matt’s Gallery in East London, long a vital laboratory for British art, finds itself in financial straits due to a rent increase and a frozen grant. One cannot necessarily assume that the state is looking slyly at the city’s still-booming art scene and assuming that the private sector—whether sponsors or the marketplace—will pick up any slack. But since the private sector is supporting some public institutions, on various levels and, apparently, in the pursuit of various interests, other questions present themselves.

If one were looking for reasons why the state might feel that private-public partnerships could work in British institutions, Tate Modern (which itself has just received another $100 million from the government to finance its expansion plans) naturally comes to mind. Within the visual arts scene, it’s the most potent embodiment of the way in which New Labour has allied itself with cultural activity and subsumed the latter under a general rubric of lifestyle, aspiration, and, of course, “cool.” It’s also, on the face of it (and usefully for a government that has constructed many public-private partnerships, not all of them happy ones), a successful example of how public and private needs might complement each other. Tate director Nicholas Serota has been tireless in lobbying the government to support contemporary art—“We all just kind of hang on his coattails,” says Lomax admiringly, and it is hard to imagine what the landscape would look like without him—but at the same time, he has also been extremely successful in getting private funding. UBS and Unilever, for instance, have poured millions into the institution’s coffers, and there are some who would argue that Tate’s programs have been strategically tailored to corporate needs. As Serota was recently quoted as saying in the Financial Times, “No amount of charm will get money if there’s no energy in the institution and the program you’re offering doesn’t engage them. You have to find a way of engaging their interest.” (Lomax, again, is “not sure that if Tate was pushing its research and museology it would be sponsored in the same way, and the same goes for the Victoria & Albert Museum.”) In this sense, while there were harbingers—Thomas Krens bringing phalanxes of motorcycles into the Guggenheim back in 1998 is an obvious example—Tate Modern might be said to have taken the ball and run with it as far as the idea of the institution as “entertainment space” goes.

This has to have been an attractive notion to private funders, even though Alex Beard, Tate Modern’s deputy director, insists that “finances have to be raised in order to nurture and sustain the program, not vice versa. . . . Our desire, for example, to realize large-scale installation projects and broaden the range of artists introduced to the public in our programs obliges us to secure the necessary funding. State funding will never be sufficient to realize the full range of our program ambitions.” Unquestionably, the mix of public and private funding frequently enables exciting shows: England’s art institutions, particularly London’s, are now anything but moribund. But here’s the chicken and the egg: Are institutional programs—and venues as a whole (consider Tate Modern’s multiple dining establishments, shops, kid-friendly “art trolley,” music nights, etc.)—buzzy and energetic in order to attract private funders, or do institutions need to attract private funders in order to finance programs that, coincidentally, would have been buzzy and energetic anyway?

What’s less debatable is that, in London, other institutions and curators have adapted or evolved—not always for the best—to meet the synergistic moment. Everywhere, one sees conflations of the art experience and the exciting, must-see event. The Serpentine Gallery has been especially savvy in this respect, rolling out pavilions and parties, “24-Hour Interview” marathons, and attention-grabbing initiatives such as “China Power Station” in Battersea Power Station (where thousands of paying customers were hustled through the derelict landmark, glimpsing contemporary Chinese art as they went, shortly before the land was sold by its Chinese owners for a $780 million profit). Other venues have hired idiosyncratic, difference-generating curators and, again, seemingly following Tate’s lead, applied a veneer of freshness by rolling out project spaces for younger artists, injecting dynamism into otherwise monolithic institutions. These are moves that, for all that they appeal to broader audiences, reposition art in relation to leisure, access, and fun—and art doesn’t necessarily escape unscathed. Project spaces, for instance—a subject that additionally opens onto the vexed territory of how institutions work with commercial galleries and support the market—run the clear risk of historicizing artists in their own time. Here’s something of an irony: As public institutions seem to be morphing to become more attractive to corporations that want to be haloed with an aura of creativity—the “creative” being the paradigmatic character template of the twenty-first-century corporate imaginary—and intellectual adventure, the institutions themselves may be less high-minded than ever before.

Again, though, more “energy” and attention naturally mean more publicity for sponsors. Institutions need financial support—they’re in competition with one another, attention-getting projects are commensurately expensive, and appeals for public funds are contingent, as we’ve seen, on the other moneys the institutions can raise—to the extent that, in order to get it, they increasingly hire substantial fund-raising departments (whose cost, of course, has to be factored in: Lomax describes this as “fund-raising to support fund-raising”). Then, of course, there is the question of quid pro quo. Asked what motivates private paymasters and what they expect in return, Beard enumerates—alongside genuinely philanthropic motives, and thank goodness for those—“enhanced brand perception through association, and extended reach through exposure to a large audience.” In this sense, allying oneself with art may be enough—especially given the possibility that the institution is, consciously or unconsciously and for a flush of reasons, adapting its public face to harmonize with yours. Lately, certain corporate sponsors have begun to recognize the value of a softly-softly approach. According to Lomax, “As time has gone on, a lot of the people who did want a big fanfare are becoming aware that it’s a bit more cool not to.” And some corporate donors have discovered that, over time, making a public splash often generates diminishing returns: In February 2007, the German brewery Beck’s canceled its sponsorship of the Institute for Contemporary Art’s Beck’s Futures award because, according to an insider quoted in the Evening Standard, “the prize wasn’t very cool anymore.” (Still, one hears other stories: Klassnik, for instance, mentions an increasingly familiar murmured narrative regarding “a company that hadn’t done art sponsorship before, wanting to have a little say about what the [exhibition] program might be. . . . It’s something in the air at the moment.”)

In a sense, however, it matters comparatively little whether it is the institution’s integral attractiveness that draws private interest or whether there has been adaptation to fit. What is of concern is that the public and the private spheres have become entangled to an unprecedented degree in the UK today—indeed, the very sense of a boundary between public and private has been breached—and that, as a consequence, the British art world would be extraordinarily vulnerable in the event of a real economic downturn. Under current financial conditions, one can have slightly mixed feelings about the apparent policy shift, active or passive, toward a privatized art world in the UK. The influx of private funding has underwritten some important and otherwise unrealizable shows, though whither the British art of that future if the state isn’t prepared to support nonprofits like Matt’s Gallery? Moreover, imagining that private money will always be there is, to use Gordon Brown’s least favorite adjective, imprudent, particularly given various ominous shots across the bow of the global economy in recent months—for an onlooker might assume that, to a corporation or private investor looking to save money in a recession, polishing one’s image by appearing to support the arts would be of declining concern. But no doubt when that day comes, and art institutions across the UK are forced to slash their budgets to make up for shortfalls in the private capital they’ve become addicted to, we’ll look back wistfully and say it was quite a ride while it lasted. More significantly, perhaps—whether the economy collapses or not—one can only wonder whether the British notion of the public institution and of public space hasn’t already been irreversibly damaged.

Martin Herbert is a writer based in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, UK.