New Deal for the Arts

As you read between the lines of recent arts funding news – like the proposed DCMS business model for arts funding and the thinking that would be behind ACE’s new arts strategy – you begin to see a problem. larger than mere intellectual fragility. It is a unique moment, which particularly needs a new approach to think about the investment of public support in the arts.

Yes, it is important that DCMS thought better recognize the recent organic development of cultural policy instead of the reductivist mathematics of its economic model. And yes, it’s important that ACE’s new artistic strategy goes beyond what has been called “vague generalizations and obscure artistic language” at a time when much of the culture ACE supports remains a hunt. guarded, and where school and (now) university arts education is dangerously in danger of disappearing from the experience of young people.

In the long run, we need more rationally inclusive and convincing evidence-based cultural investment strategies, but today there are also much more immediate needs if our artists are to be supported to fully play their role in the recovery. after this really terrible year. These types of global disasters differ from event to event, but looking at past crises, there are commonalities in the ways responsive governments have responded.

A creative future

The Great American Depression pushed national unemployment up to 25%, to which Franklin D. Roosevelt responded with his visionary New Deal – consistently referenced today as governments grapple with the aftermath of the pandemic, but often characterized simply as a program of physical regeneration. However, under this broad umbrella also lay a multitude of cultural initiatives such as the Public Works of Art Project.

By the first quarter of 1934, over three thousand artists across the country had been hired to produce 15,663 two- and three-dimensional works of art for government buildings. Inevitably, they were of varying quality, but many captured the moment with incredibly authentic immediacy. As the head of workplace assistance, Harry Hopkins, said so memorably of artists: “Hell, they have to eat like the rest of them! “

In 1951, the multidisciplinary celebration of arts, architecture and design, science and technology within the Festival of Britain sparked enthusiasm for a new kind of future – a path out of devastation and from the human tragedy of WWII to a creative future. The people involved in its planning speak more of its effervescence of improvisation than of abstract or cerebral theorizing.

People not institutions

Not as pervasive as COVID-19, the SARS pandemic has nonetheless caused terrible damage in the communities it has struck. Toronto (with its mantra “rekindle the lights”) responded with two major interdisciplinary festivals to revive the city’s cultural communities, as well as ten large-scale infrastructure projects that have added a new, internationally-oriented spice to the environment. already rich culture of Toronto.

Hong Kong’s response to SARS was economically driven, but its two-phase program (Reassurance-Recovery) still gave way to an extensive festival program including a Hong Kong Cultural Industries Festival and (poignant to remember after the break-up) Brexit) a collaborative Asia-Pacific Cultural Cooperation Initiative.

The key commonality of these programs and others like them is how they have a human rather than an institutional focus, inspiring communities struggling to survive trauma beyond simply meeting their material needs.

The UK’s Cultural Recovery Fund had honorable intentions, but it faced lingering questions about the erratic distribution of its funding, failing to connect with many cultural communities who need it most – reflecting its reliance on traditional institutional funding models rather than some sort of inclusive and dispersed cultural energy that this moment so badly needs.

Creative engagement with the arts holds a particularly powerful key to a broader national recovery from the devastation of Covid-19. Aware of this potential, there is a need for an investment approach based on people and their communities rather than on institutions and buildings; on the imagination rather than on the formulas; and on a new sense of inclusion and discovery oriented towards the future rather than an attempt to return to “business as usual”. Instead of seeing our damaged cultural ecology through a theoretical lens, government and funding agency thinking needs a lens that prioritizes visionary individual creativity.

Tonic to the nation

Looking at the 10 extremely innovative multidisciplinary projects that make up the 2022 UK * National Festival, completely reshaped from its controversial origins, they represent the opposite of traditional funding agency thinking. Still criticized by some people (who may not yet have explored its kaleidoscopic riches and anarchic exuberance), it might yet turn out to be what we need most as a ‘tonic for the nation’ – like the director of the Festival of Britain has succinctly defined his objective.

Its ten sub-festivals radiate inclusive excitement in the best traditions of how artists have so often offered their communities adventure and ambition in times of adversity – each festival is bursting with creative energy while being developed through a process. rigorous R&D, in partnership with evidence – theory based on passionate humanist creativity.

For the immediate future, this type of thinking and the New Deal and projects like these are much more likely to rekindle a national sense of hope and belief in the future than theoretical and stereotypical approaches. Now is not the time to favor a narrowly specific and ideologically selected type of cultural infrastructure.

After a unique moment of agonizing discontinuity, it is a unique moment of precious opportunity. It calls for new and imaginatively agile thinking about the different ways to invest public support in our artists and their work, which could result in such an exciting and fresh contemporary cultural landscape after the ravages of last year. As members of a global community looking for a way out of a global disaster, we need to hear the ageless voice of Robert Frost in “The Road Not Taken” and take the road less traveled. . It will make all the difference.

Anthony Sargent is an international cultural consultant and advisor.
Anthony Sargent CBE


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