The Ties That Bind

The Ties That Bind

Haber waiting for the subway in Rome

Eight of us arrived at the enormous estate of the German Academy at Villa Massimo last Sunday: Chris, the American Academy chef; Hendrik, our coach (a fellow from last year who has managed to remain in Rome, teaching at a university); and six fellows in arts-related fields. We came wearing shorts, black shirts, sneakers, and the longest socks we could find. We were about to take on the Germans in a soccer tournament with the promise of a barbecue to follow.

We lost. Badly, considering that the Germans had a four-year-old kid on their team. The Germans passed the ball to each other in careful, precise, small movements. We, on the other hand, focused on going for the gold as quickly as possible, barreling down the field and whomping the ball in the general direction of the goal in the hope that God would take care of the rest.

But the barbecue was great, as were the German fellows. Their Academy is funded by the government, while the American Academy is not. What implications does this have? Ten fellows versus our thirty. Each fellow receives a massive studio complex with an apartment, guest quarters, kitchen, and private garden. They do not eat lunch and dinner together like we do, they don’t have an operating bar like we do, but they did have a lot of beer—endless cases and cases of beer.

Otherwise it seemed, on the surface, quite similar to our Academy: a beautiful space, fellows working in diverse fields who collaborate with one another. When I spoke to several of them about public funding, they were happy to have it so.

The day after the game I sat down to lunch with Bill Franklin, associate director for external affairs, and asked him what he thought about the public vs. private question. He spoke of the American Academy’s pride in remaining private, fitting with the American spirit of independence and entrepreneurship. Government control often means a government-appointed director bringing with him or her a government agenda. If a certain administration chooses to cut back on arts funding, the academy suffers, while a private academy may continue despite any political shifts.

Franklin also pointed out that whereas a state-run academy has a directive to support its own citizens, the AAR is gradually opening its doors to non-U.S. artists and scholars. Aside from thirty American fellows, the AAR has visiting artists and affiliated fellows from an increasing number of countries who fill up the many extra rooms: certainly it is a solution to paying housecleaning and electrical bills, but it also means we have a constant influx of artists and scholars from around the world who enrich our halls.

Franklin spoke of the American Academy’s pride in being private since its inception. Can a private institution control its artistic agenda in a way that a public one cannot? How would the American policy makers effect the course of this institution were it to be government run?

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3 thoughts on “The Ties That Bind

  1. William Osborne

    Thank you for this very interesting commentary, Yotam. The ten to thirty ratio shows that the Villa Massimo has about the same per capita ratio of fellows as the American Academy, because Germany has less than one-third the population of the USA. The other factors you mention, such as isolated quarters, and the inclusion of foreigners are policy decisions that are not particularly influenced by funding systems. Europeans, for example, generously fund resident foreign artists in most of their institutions. (The beer, however, is definitely German in both its public and private functions.)

    Asking the administrators at private American arts institutions about public funding can be like asking the Pope about Martin Luther. They have specialized careers administering private funds, a system that formulates their expertise, power, status, job security, and future employability. Public funding is thus a heterodoxy that often challenges their entire belief system. They have a vested interest in maintaining a funding system that is broken.

    This is illustrated in your interview. There is no reason to assume governments will have more agendas than private funders. Ask your German colleagues if they can recount an example of the government interfering in the arts. They will tell you it doesn’t happen. European governments avoid falling into that pitfall like the plague. It would cause scandals that would end political careers. It is similar to the way the American government scrupulously avoids interfering in the policies of the Federal Reserve.

    (Ironically, my wife and I are famous –or notorious—because our fight against sexism in orchestras has faced political interference in Germany and Austria, but that is a special and isolated case that shouldn’t be taken as a norm. Our struggles have faced cultural norms that do not derive from funding systems.)

    It is notable that among the Western democracies, it is only in America that politicians regularly attack the arts. There is a very complex history behind this peculiarly American phenomenon that needs to be examined historically, socially, and politically. Public arts funding requires certain kinds of political sophistication and experience that the American public and government have not yet developed. The main cause is simply a lack of experience.

    Comparisons also show that public funding in Europe is far more financially stable than America’s private funding system. In this case, the reasons are less complex. First, individual and corporate endowments are vastly smaller than a country’s tax base, and thus much more strongly influenced by economic turns. Second, the stock market can change drastically over night, but tax laws change slowly. And third, healthy governments have far broader goals and perspectives than corporations.

    The ultimate test is to compare the number of arts institutions that the two systems make available to the public. Germany, for example, has 23 times more full-time, year-round orchestras per capita than the USA, and approximately 28 times more full-time, year-round opera houses. (Actually the USA doesn’t have any full-time, year-round opera houses, while Germany has about 80, but I added up all the partial seasons of the American houses with a very generous estimate to make the comparison.)

    When I can get to it, I will send some numbers and analysis for funding in various European countries so that readers can see the extreme differences in availability of the arts created by public funding. The numbers also show that Europeans tend to hold arts funding stable even during economic downturns.

    The American system is radical and isolated. We must continue to challenge the constant, demonizing propaganda we hear about public arts funding.

    (This is such an important topic, that I am sorry I had to scribble this post. I hope it is clear enough.)

    William Osborne

  2. ymh2

    Perhaps I should have added that I asked four of the 10 fellows at the German Academy to comment and did not receive a single reply.


  3. William Osborne

    In this post I provide information about European arts funding – though it is far more than most of you will want to read (over three quickly written pages.) I include a lot of documentation from the press. The articles confirm that Europeans have held arts funding stable, or have even raised it during the economic downturn caused by the dotcom crash. I also include quotes that explain why Europeans support public arts funding. Britain, for example, doubled arts funding from £198m when the Labour Party came to power in 1997 to £411m in 2004. The articles show that in 2004, French government spending for the arts rose 5.9%, which was three times inflation. I also discuss the generous funding systems in other countries such as Finland. The economies of Spain and Ireland have skyrocketed since they entered the European Union. Their per capita increases in arts funding have been phenomenal.

    In general, there is much more lively discussion and debate in the European press about arts funding than in the States. The first clip is from the BBC’s website, May 24, 2004 and is entitle “London is ‘Classical Music Capitol.’” It argues that public funding actually helps orchestras stay in touch with the public’s musical interests and tastes.

    The LPO had just performed Howard Shore’s score for Lord of Rings for an audience of more than 3000 people. Timothy Walker, artistic director of the LPO explained how public funding creates a connection with the public: “We have to do great symphonic repertoire. But film music is a great part of our musical life. We are funded by the taxpayer and we have a duty to appeal to as wide an audience as possible.” Mr. Walker pointed to London’s “five great orchestras and two opera houses” as proof of the city’s musical pre-eminence. “New York has just one symphony orchestra,” he said by way of comparison.

    (For those who might not know, the orchestras are the London Philharmonic Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Philharmonia, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. London also has two opera houses.)

    The article notes that even though the city has five orchestras, the LPO sells about 82% of all tickets for its concerts, and many events are sold out. (No big need for iPods and Indie Rock influenced concerts there.)

    Mr. Walker said it would be possible to raise attendance to 90%, but he would be:

    “…worried that our program was not adventurous enough. If we program in a conservative way, with great conductors and soloists, we are confident we would sell out the concert hall. With new, edgier work, and younger artists, the risks are higher. Orchestras are very fragile organizations. It is always difficult to balance the commercial and creative aspects of the orchestra.”

    The article stresses that public funding gives the LPO the freedom to find a reasonable balance between popular and innovative programming.

    Helsinki also has five symphony orchestras even though its population is only 565,186. A per capita comparison would give New York City 80 full-time orchestras!!! [I used this information about Helsinki recently in another NMB thread, but I include it here too so that all of the information will be together.]

    Here are some clips from a commentary in the Star Tribune of Minneapolis from April 23, 2004 entitled “Music Education Permeates Finnish Society” written by Kristin Tillotson:

    “Helsinki alone is home to five symphony orchestras. Nationwide, there are 21 more, as well as 12 regional opera companies. At least eight world-class conductors, including the Minnesota Orchestra’s Osmo Vanska and the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Esa-Pekka Salonen, were raised and trained in Finland. More than 30 full-time classical composers live and work there.

    The article continues:

    “How has a nation of 5.2 million people — a population only slighter greater than the state of Minnesota’s — produced such a surplus of talent? […] Outstanding music education is the primary reason. But at its source is a national attitude that music is not dessert, but an essential food group for personal, cultural and civic sustenance, and as deserving of government subsidy as health care and schools.”

    The Star Tribune article continues with a quote of the director of advanced studies at the Sibelius Academy, Osmo Palonen:

    “‘[Music] is so ingrained in our culture; there is never a question about the government putting a lot of money into it. This also makes music very democratic here, not just something for the elite.’”

    In an article in the Guardian on May 3, 2004, Louise Jury quotes Tessa Jowell, Britains’s Secretary of State for Culture. Ms. Jowell explains the vital role public arts funding plays in the health of cities and the well-being of the public:

    “‘MPs are waking up to the fact that cities such as Birmingham and Liverpool are being brought to life by culture. Labour must lead from the front in advocating arts as a public good in itself’, she said. ‘There is a parody of culture which is prevalent, that these are issues of interest only to a disconnected elite. But it is the enthusiasm and hunger that people have for culture that is driving this.’

    “The arts are not just ‘a pleasurable hinterland’ for the public to fall back on after the ‘important things – work and paying tax’ are done, [Jowell] argues in a 19-page pamphlet.

    “‘It is at the heart of what it means to be a fully developed human being. Government should be concerned that so few aspire to it, and has a responsibility to do what it reasonably can to raise the quantity and quality of that aspiration.’”

    How different such ideals are from the defeatist and misinformed attitudes regarding public funding in America — and even among American artists.

    The Guardian continues:

    “While spending on the arts has doubled since 1997 and scrapping entrance charges to national museums has boosted attendance by millions, some MPs are still inclined to lob the elitism charge at expenditure on opera or orchestras. Arts leaders have felt despair that the Prime Minister has seemed so unwilling to be seen in their museums and theatres. But they will be encouraged that Ms. Jowell says ‘intelligent public subsidy’ is vital if the arts are to take their place at the heart of national life. Audiences will be developed only through ‘determined policy initiatives,’ she says.”

    “Determined policy initiatives” that create “intelligent public subsidy.” Again, a big contrast to American views which result in the poverty of our cultural life compared to Europe. The 2004 British government arts budget was 800 million dollars, and thus 30 times higher than the per capita funding of the NEA. (And Britain, by the way, has one of the lowest per capita rates of public funding for the arts in Western Europe.)

    An article in the rather conservative Bloomberg News, dated February 2, 2004 mentions that the cultural budget in Italy was cut by 2.5% leaving a sum of 1.97 billion dollars. The Italian government’s per capita cultural spending is thus about 56 times higher than the NEA budget.

    The Bloomberg article also notes that:

    “Among European countries, museums fare best in France, where about 1 percent of the national budget is spent on culture each year, and this year’s package is up 5.9 percent — three times inflation — at 2.79 billion euros.”

    The per capita French budget is thus about 80 times the NEA budget. Imagine if one percent of our national budget went to the arts. That would be 24 billion dollars for fiscal year 2007. That’s 172 times higher than the current NEA budget.

    Arts funding in Italy was indeed attacked by the Berlusconi government. He was the sole owner of all of Italy’s private television stations. He attempted to eliminate government involvement in almost all forms of media to increase his monopolistic control. He was finally driven from office because his underhanded financial dealing caused the populace to see him as a common crook.

    Most Europeans remain deeply wary of corporate sponsorship of the arts. Bloomberg News has written some interesting articles about these problems, but I won’t quote them here. The Guardian also addresses this problem in an article by Peter Kennard entitled “Hung out to dry by the sponsors: Art’s corporate backers decide what we can see in public spaces”, published December 30, 2003.

    This isn’t to say that the Europeans don’t keep an eye on the American scene. In an article from the Deutsche Welle website on February 2, 2005, Gerald Mertens, the director of the German Orchestra Union, noted that, “Orchestras in competitive markets such as Berlin, Munich or the Ruhrpott region in North Rhine-Westphalia will be particularly pressured to distinguish themselves. They have to become more active in documenting their societal value.” [Munich, for example, has 6 full-time orchestras in a city of 1.2m. And Berlin has three opera houses in a city of about 4m.] Mertens said that while Germany remains the world’s No. 1 market for classical music, it lags far behind Britain and especially the US in terms of innovation.

    If only we had this modesty and open-mindedness in our relations with the world. In the meantime, don’t listen to the rather widespread American propaganda demonizing public arts funding. The neo-con political agenda of such misinformation is relatively transparent, and such views have plagues our society for decades. We should not despair. Just like the Europeans, with “determined policy initiatives” we can greatly increase our public support for the arts.

    Forgive me for this long scribbled post. I wrote most of the info quickly last summer, and never shaped it into a more organized form. And thanks, Yotam, for addressing the issue.

    William Osborne


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