I was a recipient of a Saari Fellowship from the Kone Foundation in 2014. My time at Saaren kartano was spent researching, writing and designing a new work for interdisciplinary theatre — THE AЯTS. It investigates the history of public funding for the arts in the United States; and contrasts it with recent events in multiple European countries, where threats to public subsidy of the arts and culture have manifested in recent years. Prior to arriving in Finland, I spent two years conducting in-person interviews with artists and arts leaders across the United States and Europe. The bulk of my time in Finland was spent making sense of these dozens of interviews; seeing how they could fuse with my existing dramaturgical plan of attack.
Much to my surprise, upon my arrival at rural Saaren kartano, I was promptly “ordered” back to Helsinki. My “orders” came from Hanna Nurminen (Executive Director) in our first orientation meeting. These “orders” were happily justified because that week was the opening of the Baltic Circle Festival. Opening night was the premiere of the Make Arts Policy event — a collaboration between Finnish and international artists, and Finnish arts organizations, about Finland’s cultural policies. The Make Arts Policy event proved that a devised performance uniting politicians and the general public around the idea of public funding for the arts and culture was not only possible, but could be successful. I believe it was one of the most relevant arts events I have ever attended in North America or in Europe.
The Make Arts Policy event combined a semi-rehearsed, devised performance with a real-time participatory civics lesson involving politicians, the general public and artists. I am extremely grateful to have received my “marching orders” from Hanna Nurminen. Attending Make Arts Policyproved to have a transformative impact upon my own project, THE AЯTS. It illustrated the point that it was ok to “think bold” during my time at Saaren Kartano. It is not just a slogan on the Kone Foundation’s website — but a tangible ideal manifested in the projects it supports. The Make Arts Policy event radically informed my own work. It changed how I perceived the potential for research materials from my own country and opened new terrain in how I could adapt interviews I conducted. The following remarks are abridged from an essay I wrote in Belgium in reply to concerns a Belgian artist had about issues of public funding for the arts that are currently being debated in Belgium. From my time in Finland, I believe the issues Belgium faces are similar to what Finland is facing. I hope these points might prove as useful and productive for Finnish politicians, artists and the general public — as the Make Arts Policy event was for me.
I am an American writer and director who has worked professionally in American, Canadian and European funding structures since 2007. You may wonder why an American, using a great deal of American examples, is relevant in a Finnish context. It is because what happened to public funding for the arts in the United States is now happening (or has already unfolded) in multiple countries around the world. I suspect it might be coming for Finland. But it can be stopped. One way is by recognizing that there is much to learn from what transpired in the United States.
1. PUBLIC vs. PRIVATE
In the United States, during the 1960s, when a federal arts policy was being debated, formulated and implemented — one of several ideas floating around was that the federal government needed to step in because the more traditional performing and visual arts — (meaning any art forms that couldn’t fit mass distribution on television, radio or in cinemas) — were suffering from an inability to compete. Precisely because these older art forms were inherently incompatible with modern, mass distribution — it was argued they deserved public support. Some elected officials did not want to live in a country where the only artistic content or ideas that citizens were exposed to originated from a few, private corporate sources. Preserving citizens access to experimental art forms, the great works of theatre, or just direct live-art experiences like say — attending performances of modern dance or classical music — was something a modern democracy needed to do in order to remain just that — a democracy.
How would this effort be paid for and financed?
What was envisioned in the United States was that the federal government would step in and provide support in the form of both money and public recognition. The budgets of our dual “National Endowments of the Arts and Humanities” started small and were not intended to solve every problem or pay for everything. The idea was that federal support would inspire other players to contribute to the effort. It worked. Across the country, individual states adopted their own funding bodies at the state level. Private corporations were another player; with the philanthropic divisions of major American corporations matching the funds that federal and state governments contributed. Major philanthropic foundations — some in leading roles — also came on board to join these efforts by the federal or state government. Lastly, legislation was written that made it easier for citizens to make financial donations to the arts deductible on their tax returns.
Each of these efforts — federal, state, corporate, foundations and private individuals — functioned together like the legs of a large table. The system worked so well that federal and state funding levels rose dramatically during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. The effort did exactly what it was envisioned to do. It was successful. Citizens living in the far reaches of rural America, to smaller regional cities, to those living in high density urban regions, saw their exposure to the arts increased. In fact, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) is factually graded as one of the most successful government programs ever implemented in the history of the United States. It was evidence that government had a viable role to play in the arts and culture. If left alone, who knows where it could have grown to in the present day.
However, it was not left alone. Precisely because it was so successful, the National Endowment for the Arts was formally attacked starting in 1989. The successful federal program of arts funding needed to be destroyed — precisely because it was evidence that government could do its job well and efficiently. It was part of a larger, long-term strategy to cultivate a narrative that government was bad. A false impression that has become permanent in the minds of most Americans.
So what happened to this arts funding partnership that had thrived for 25 years? Once the federal leg of the arts funding table was drastically reduced and essentially taken away — the states began to decrease their own funding. Shortly after that, corporations did the same. Consequently, with a decreased involvement from three other major players, many private foundations shifted their focus away from the arts. Now, in the United States, one could argue that the entire arts funding table is being held up solely by one leg — private donations from individuals.
This is unsustainable. And this course of events has resulted in the history of American arts funding now coming full circle. If you read the blog posts today from arts professionals in the United States — and their statements on the problems they face in their field (regardless of their institution or size or scale or discipline) — their statements are nearly identical to the testimony from hearings held during joint sessions of Congress from 1963-1965. You can superimpose blog posts from 2009-2015 over transcripts from hearings held in October 1963 — and they are virtually identical; almost verbatim.
We are right back where we started.
We have a challenge before us to re-articulate the value of the arts and culture in a democracy. However, that articulation does not and cannot fit the easy and the immediate. It takes time. Its unavoidable. By definition, it resists tendencies towards compression and sound-bites that dominate our public discourse. We — artists ourselves — need to urgently uncover ways around these obstacles — with the same sense of rigor and inventiveness that we would invest in our artistic practice. To adhere to the flawed systems we are living under is not an option.
A word on “debate” when it comes to issues of public funding of the arts and culture. Be careful when we use the word “debate” in this context. We tend to forget that “the debate” has already happened. In the United States. In Great Britain. In The Netherlands and Australia. Even in Belgium and Finland. The debates surrounding the idea of public funding for the arts have already happened. The debates happened in each country when the public funding systems were argued into existence, legislation was written, and public funding for the arts and culture was established. In each country mentioned, either during the 1950s or the 1960s, or even as recently as the 1980s/1990s — the right of citizens to expect arts funding and culture funding as part of their democratically-elected government’s spending policies has been established. It’s even clearly stated in the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights.
So what is there to debate?
In any of the countries I just mentioned — would you seriously “debate” a woman’s right to vote today? In the United States, would you really “debate” civil rights today? Would we really “debate” the freedom of speech? Would we “debate” the right to a fair trial in a court of law? No. Because those things have been clearly established. Why then do we allow the ground to be shifted under our feet when it comes to the public funding of the arts and culture? Why do we not apply the same reasoning and logic that are applied to civil rights when it comes to our rights to access the arts and culture?
Twenty-five years from now in Ireland (where I am also a citizen) would you expect its people to “debate” all over again the issue of gay marriage? Of course not. It is now established. It is permanent. It is legal. Some folks may disagree, but tough luck. Deal with it. So why do we permit our public funding systems for the arts and culture to be “debated”?
During my research, I’ve noticed a disturbing, repetitious trend. When the original architects of the legislative achievement — the original figures who fought for public funding of the arts and culture — when those original architects start to become elderly, retire or die — it is as if the country loses some aspect of its cultural and historical memory. There is a loss of vocabulary and the hands-on knowledge those individuals possessed. Immediately, you start to see a trend — the idea of public funding for the arts is eroded. It happened in the United States, when the late Senator Claiborne Pell (D-RI) became afflicted by the onset of Parkinson’s Disease. Pell could not beat back the Republican attacks during his last two years in office (1994-1995) that he had previously defeated during the 1970s and 1980s. Before her death, the late Belgian dramaturge, Marianne Van Kerkhoven, expressed such a concern to me in person during a conversation at Kaaistudios. She feared the younger generation of Belgian artists were not aware of how hard she and others had to fight to establish their system; that they lacked the vocabulary to articulate a defense. This is one of the main reasons Dragan Klaic stated in the preface to his book Resetting The Stage: Public Theatre Between the Market and Democracy as to why he devoted the last year of his life writing down his arguments. He was appalled and frightened at the lack of awareness of these issues in his graduate students in The Netherlands. I believe you see this phenomena in concerns the Belgian curator and presenter Frie Leysen has expressed in her recent fiery speeches from 2014-2015. Reading the translated writings of Dutch dramaturge Tom Blokdijk on events in The Netherlands during 2010-2011, I suspect it is one of the main reasons why the Dutch were unable to mount an effective resistance to the assault on public funding of the arts.
We need to remember that “the debate” has already happened. If we are not aware of “the how” and “the why” it happened — if we are not aware of successful arguments used — then it is our responsibility as artists and arts workers to go back, unearth the legislative records of our own countries — and actually read them. I suspect we would be better informed and better armed in our discussions. This process of knowing what happened in the past on this issue, is equally important as mastering our own contemporary artistic practices. We need to invest the time in both. Which is not fun. I know. It’s not glamorous. But what other choice do we have when faced with the total erasure of all we know?
And lastly — on the issue of public funding for the arts — ground must not be yielded at all. Ever. Public funding of the arts is an essential aspect to any resemblance of a civil society in a modern democracy. Without it, we are nothing. Without it, all other issues of public funding — education, the humanities, health care, transportation, access to information, libraries, whatever — will start to fade and erode as well. Trust me. As an American, I know this reality all too well.
We need less debate and more action. We need less debate and more action to reclaim lost ground. We need less emphasis on figuring out “new models” — and more defense of what already exists.
Permit me to share a story I like to tell about the avant-garde.
The term “avant-garde” was originally a French term from the 19th century that was used to describe elite troops who would forage ahead of the main army column. This group of soldiers would search for good terrain by which the rest of the army could safely travel — to either attack the enemy from a better position — or simply just camp for the night in peace on safe ground. In its military usage, the “avant-garde” would always send word back to the main column of the army and communicate the path forward. I suspect this is why the phrase was originally appropriated by European artists living in post-war periods. Today, however, this is an aspect of the “avant-garde” we tend to forget. Today’s avant-garde has a tendency to not send word back to the main column — to the rest of the general population. On the contrary, today’s avant-garde tends to rest on the ground it has found and camp on its own; without sending word back. They rest, safe and secure for the night, talking to each other around the campfire (maybe roasting marshmallows) — while the rest of army, the rest of the mainstream population — is wandering around all night — lost, tired, cold and confused out in the wilderness of what has become our endless post-Great Recession landscape.
We need less debate amongst ourselves. We need less debate on how to communicate with politicians. Rather, we need more direct action to engage with the general public. The more of the general public we reach, engage with, convince and get on our side — the easier all our efforts will be in regards to public funding of the arts and culture.