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Public Financing for the Arts in Europe Takes a Hit

By Sean Bowie | March 26, 2012


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Tell me if you have heard this one before.

In the midst of an economic downturn, a country desperately searches for cuts in spending anywhere it can, as calls for budget austerity grow louder. In the end, it’s the more vulnerable programs that are hit the hardest, which often includes education programs, safety net measures, and the arts community.

While that above paragraph would describe the arts community in the United States in recent years, the trend is now playing out across Europe as debt-ridden countries turn to austerity measures in the face of the European debt crisis. While European countries spend significantly more on the arts than we do in the United States, the dangers of budget austerity in the coming years for the arts community in several European countries are very, very real.

I have been thinking a lot about this issue of arts funding in Europe vs. the United States over the past week, and two events in particular heightened my interest. First, this past Friday, we sponsored a Carnegie Mellon Master of Arts Management Speaker Series event with the Consulate of the Netherlands, who were in town for the annual Dutch Festival in Pittsburgh. We started talking about the difference in the way the arts are funded in a country like the Netherlands versus the way it is funded here at home. More on that in a minute.

The other item that caught my interest was a front page story in the New York Times yesterday about the fate of public financing for the arts in Europe. As I mentioned above, Europe is now going through the same kind of austerity measures that rocked the United States in 2009: debt is growing, calls for fiscal restraint are getting louder, and every program is being measured for its return on investment and how important it is going forward.

The numbers are striking: as the New York Times reports, in the Netherlands, the budget for arts and culture is seeing a decrease of roughly $265 million, or 25 percent. In addition to those cuts, the public is being asked to pay more to see shows and events, with increased taxes on tickets.

These cuts are hitting smaller venues, troupes, and companies the hardest: with less funding to go around, existing expenditures are being targeted at more established performers, forcing more unique acts, which may be struggling for audiences, to face an uncertain future.

And while some may feel that cuts to the arts in Europe would have little effect on the arts here in the United States, one of the expenses artists in Europe are cutting back on are trips and performances overseas, to countries like the United States. Artists are cancelling trips and forcing festivals to find alternative performers.

Another effect this is going to have on the American arts community is over the issue of fundraising. As we discussed with the Consulate of the Netherlands on Friday, there are different views towards art funding in Europe than there are here. In a country like the Netherlands, a resident pays higher taxes to pay for additional services like health care, transportation, and safety net measures. Another element of those increased taxes is funding for the arts; with the government taking a higher percentage out of every paycheck, many Dutch residents feel they are less inclined to donate their own money to the arts because they feel like the government is already doing it for them.

Here in the United States, the opposite is true: the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) receives such a small percentage of overall government revenue (usually in the range of $150-160 million, compared to billions of dollars in several European countries) that the vast majority of funding for the arts comes from donations from individuals. Since Americans are taxed at a much lower rate, they have more disposable income, and thus more free to donate it to the art of their choosing. There are issues of whether a lot of this money is really going to where it is needed, but that is a discussion for another day.

With European governments cutting back on their arts funding, this is naturally going to lead to artists in Europe to seek alternative sources of revenue. As the New York Times explains, this includes going after their descendents currently living in America – who may be already donating to arts organizations in their communities.

So this presents a problem: a global recession and austerity measures in dozens of countries, all leading to a shift in the way arts are funded worldwide. It will lead to more uncertainty, a greater dispersion of artistic funding and increased competition for the individuals who provide a sizeable percentage of giving.

Is the current model, where American artists rely mostly on private donations and European artists rely on government grants, sustainable? For the United States, absolutely. With calls from some politicians to cut and even eliminate funding for the NEA and other culture programs, there is certainly little chance of seeing an increase in federal funds for the arts.

As for Europe? That is a different story. As the story goes, as the pond gets smaller (in this case, the pond symbolizing the amount of funding), the fish will get nervous, and perhaps seek refuge elsewhere, in the form of spending more of their time fundraising, at the expense of the very same art they are seeking to promote. With artists now having to listen to potential funders, who may have a different vision for what kind of art they want to see, the impact on what kind of art is made and performed is bound to be substantial.

In the short term, the effect is obvious: less festivals, traveling art troupes, and shows. Fewer jobs for artists in countries like Italy, Hungary, Netherlands and Greece. Fewer opportunities for tourists and residents to see the best of what each of these countries has to offer.

It really is sad, but perhaps unavoidable. As I have written before, we seem to find ourselves in the era of budget austerity, and even while the economy has shown signs of improvement in recent months, the desire to increase funding for the arts pales in comparison to support for other existing programs.

The promise and benefit of increased funding for the arts, both at the private and federal level, is well known to all readers of this blog. The New York Times piece describes Europe as the place “where art is life,” and while that is certainly true to anyone who has visited, the newfound austerity measures being put in place represent a significant threat to that very same life going forward.

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