Who Better Supports Artists—Americans or Brits?

Whenever the U.K. faces cuts in public funding for the arts, we instinctively look to the U.S. From our end, we see a generous philanthropic corporate class and entrepreneurial non-profits operating without federal and state handouts. Meanwhile, arts organizations and artists in the U.S. often view the U.K. with envy. We are blessed with a mixed funding model that enables generous support for audience development, arts education, and professional training, all the while we retain an appetite for state-sponsored experimental work. However, the art worlds on both sides of the Atlantic have been rocked by Trump and Brexit. We stare at each other in disbelief but also with a renewed appetite for action.

A scan of our respective funding and policy landscapes suggests we might have much to learn from each other. Both the U.K. and the U.S. are endowed with nineteenth century art forms delivered through twentieth century institutions to 21st century audiences. Our government agencies are intertwined. Arts Council England’s predecessor (the wartime Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts) was established with money from the Pilgrim Trust (a private fund stuffed with American money). In turn, the Arts Council provided the template for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), which was established 19 years later, and celebrated its 50th anniversary last year. The NEA largely has been kept starved of funds, while the Arts Council has grown in scale and resources—though a conservative government in Britain with a penchant for cuts and privatization is watching the arts with that familiar dastardly look in their eyes.

A transatlantic truth is that arts policy is always absurd. And the absurdity is heightened when government agencies are faced with cold, hard questions about resource allocation, and collide with the diffuse rhetoric of the visual arts. What kind of world would the NEA or ACE like to see? Do they want to foster good artists, or good aesthetes? Talented painters or astute consumers? Doers or seers? The answers from Washington and London look strikingly similar: they want everyone optimally engaged, artists fulfilling their potential, and as much of the best kind of art as possible.

The problem is, this is the vocabulary of apolitical fairy tales, not sober policymaking. They cannot escape the challenges of selecting winners and losers, choosing between work that is laudable and that which should be dismissed, and ultimately distributing limited resources between a multitude of noisy and deserving non-profits. These are, ultimately, political questions. Luckily for the NEA, their constrained resources means they are less expected to “do something” at points of crisis; the Arts Council, on the other hand, is often seen to perform a more paternal role in times of trouble.

And that time is certainly now. Strong currents of populist revolt are being felt the world over, while artists are still speaking primarily to those who would rather the status quo remain just that. National surveys of adults in America and England have returned consistent findings in recent years—gallery goers are disproportionately white and well educated. Meanwhile, other data shows there are gross inequities in the distribution of funding to artists and communities, depending on where they are located. Disparities in race and class, in particular, are often replicated in the funding decisions of arts agencies. There have been many attempts to redress these imbalances (often using under-resourced and short-lived programs) and despite the best of intentions these haven’t really made an impact.

In 2016, long-standing structural inequalities relating to arts access on both sides of the Atlantic seem to have been joined by a fresh and yet more intractable policy dilemma: the cultural estrangement in both Trump-leaning counties in the U.S. and the Brexity bits of Great Britain. It seems likely to me that art (as an indicator of cultural relations, identity, and meaning) will become an intermittent flashpoint in both countries as cultural divisions are laid bare and artists seek to understand and express just what on Earth is going on.

The fate of artists in this brave new world seems no less straightforward. Are artists special creatures, to be protected from the evils of the market economy or rather thrust into it, as designers, animators and engines of social and economic growth in our innovative and creative industries? The atmosphere created by inward-looking and protectionist policies will either send artists running for cover or more likely induce them to renew efforts to reach out beyond arbitrary national boundaries and reaffirm our common humanity through free expression and cosmopolitan outlooks. Either way, artists are going to need back-up. And two important studies (one in the U.K. and one in the U.S.) indicate that they face very similar issues in our two precarious economies.

Both studies examine why artists are poor: sometimes caught by their own economic illiteracy, other times by their disavowal of capitalism? Regardless, they are beloved by city planners busy with Creative Placemaking projects. Artists occupy and revitalize the low-grade spaces which are subsequently suffocated by an influx of moneyed speculators. Municipal governments stand by, stupefied by the complexity of the situation and hampered by the deregulated planning laws their predecessors have set in place. It’s the same everywhere. Policy solutions are in short supply.

As we sail into this unchartered territory, the major agents of change in the U.S. will be trusts and foundations, who collectively have the power to affect the fate of nonprofits in the arts in a way that ACE and local government agencies might here in the U.K. The culture wars of the 1990s saw to the emaciation of the NEA and with it, strong federal funding of the arts in America. Upon reflection, perhaps you should be thankful that the national arts agency can’t be a powerful agent on behalf of your incoming President. Hamilton? “Over-rated!” SNL? “Boring!” And MoMA? Well, we will have to wait for a tweet. And after decanting the NEA out of their landmark offices in D.C., the art world is waiting with trepidation to hear who will succeed Jane Chu as NEA Chairman.

Meanwhile, in the background, the monolithic institutions in big cities seem immune to the changing politics of our time. The National Galleries and major museums look like they are going to outlive Trump and Brexit by serving an international crowd, while their neighborhoods and cities change around them. Despite local flavor, the works on site follow a familiar encyclopedic pattern: a Rembrandt here, a Van Gogh there, a handful of Picassos everywhere. The one percent look like they’ll survive this too, that merry band of interchangeable private collectors who lubricate the art markets in London and New York. The flats in Mayfair probably resemble the apartments in the Upper East Side and there’s always enough Warhol for both.

The U.K. often sees itself in the midpoint between the continental model of arts policy (rich in subsidy and state patronage, funding spread evenly across regions, formalized arts education systems) and the U.S. approach (reliant on private enterprise, resources concentrated in a small number of artistic centers, minimal state intervention). As we approach 2017, our state apparatus, hastened by post-Brexit maneuvers, looks increasingly vulnerable to privatization—and we in the U.K. edge ever closer to the U.S. way of doing business. Ireland better get out the way, we’re coming through.


—James Doeser

Share article