Questioning Old Dogmas
I sense a sea change in the way the arts are funded. There is no doubt that many countries in Europe are cutting their culture budgets. A recent leader in the Financial Times concluded:
“Cultural organisations also need to do more to help themselves. A new act is unfolding in the drama of arts funding – and artists must play their role to the full.”
Arts organisations are entrepreneurial by nature. Many of the largest arts organisations are becoming more commercially savvy.
In London, where the lion’s share of all private cultural investment is raised, major bodies have seen the light. The Royal Opera House joined forces with RealD, a film and production company to provide 3D movies of their productions worldwide; the National Theatre is producing films of its block buster productions to 380 cinemas across the globe. The public grant percentage of their income has been reducing annually.
However, I am aware that no arts organisation, large or small, has been heard to turn down public money. Nor am I advocating that they should, but to re-examine their legal structure and to see whether being a charity fits their long term ambitions.
Charitable status can, at times, seem like a dead hand squeezing the life blood out of many arts bodies, with risk adverse boards of directors, marginalising the paid management. The founding fathers of both United Kingdom and United States charitable law would never have envisaged thousands of arts organisations registering as charities. Of course, arts organisations want to receive philanthropic gifts and there are mechanisms by which this can be achieved. But do the financial benefits of reduced rates and tax outweigh having an employee owned business with the stimulus to generate real profits to reward colleagues and to plough back funds into the artistic endeavours?
Many of the worthy men and women who sit on boards of arts organisations have little if any of the skills necessary to help the organisation achieve its artistic goals or financial security. Surely governance is more than being an unpaid fundraiser? Also we have to break down the prejudices that so be-devil the charitable sector generally of “public sector good, private sector bad.” Profit-making should not compromise artistic creativity – they are not contradictions in terms.
As Nello McDaniel, director of Arts Action Research, observes: “The biggest flaw in the system and structure is that, by its nature it compromised and de-legitimatized professional arts leadership in essential areas of artistic and operating leadership and decision making within each organization and has resulted in the most overregulated, entrepreneurially restricted industry this country has likely known.”
Internationally we are seeing a generational change where arts practitioners are not interested in the “arts for arts sake” model and are looking for a more entrepreneurial approach. Nonprofits must stop being automatically translated into charity. An arts organisation that says it is “nonprofit," does not mean it is not interested in profit.
The arts must no longer be hampered by its legal status as charities, to exploit its products in the market. It is time to question old dogmas and allow new models to perform centre stage. Let the debate continue.