Let’s Deal with the Funding – quickly.

The Uplift Campaign for an adequately resourced Department of Arts, Culture and Heritage now has 13,120+ signatures.  That is phenomenal.

The Minister, on radio, in print, and on social media, has tried to move the debate to a question of Funding. The phrase “seeking more funding” has been used by the Minister again and again. I don’t think this is a deliberate strategy.  I think it is the result of a political confusion of policy and budgeting.

If we engage with the Funding debate for a moment, we need to ask are there quick ways to create funding opportunities for all artists without increasing the department budget? Wouldn’t that be interesting?The answer is yes. Here’s a couple of options.

Nil rate the VAT on all cultural activity and organisations. At present the majority of people and organisations working in the cultural sector pay VAT but cannot claim it back. This is not a natural phenomenon. It’s the result of legislation. The tool already exists to change it. Simply Nil Rate the cultural sector, immediately freeing up cash and maximising the impact of existing state funding into the sector.

Work with the departments of welfare and finance and introduce an artists welfare scheme similar to the one practiced in France for so many years (which is now under attack in these austere neoliberal times). Treat it as an experiment in universal basic income – which is inevitable in the years ahead in any event. No, this is not “free money”, as we’ll have to agree the terms  and conditions. But it is a way of supporting development and production and freeing creative people and projects from the unaccountable vagaries of the institutional grant application cycle.

Introduce tax relief on investment into cultural projects, and give the relief to the donor. I’ve written about this in more detail here, but essentially we need to make it easier and more rewarding for more people to support work. For example, a person planning a creative project could raise 100k from 20 people (friends and family) if those people thought that they could get that money back in tax.  Make it much easier for people to do this the less they earn and you widen the engagement in, and promote understanding of, cultural activity.

Introduce Tax relief on sponsorship targeted at small-scale projects, and at individuals. Effectively focus the attention of potential sponsors away from exclusive engagement with the larger national institutions, bringing them into play at the development and local level to a greater extent. There are of course ethical considerations here but each organisation or artist can choose whether or not to pursue this avenue.

Loan Underwriting is all the rage in EU Policy circles at the mo (or it was the last time I looked). The principle is simple. I have a project idea. I take the proposal to the bank and request an amount of money (say 100K). The bank agrees to lend because the proposal is underwritten by the Department/Local Authority/Arts Council. The project only earns 70K, but the loss is covered by the guaranteeing body. If the project is wildly successful then the guaranteeing body could contractually claim a nominal percentage of profits, lets say 1%.  Imagine, if instead of re-mortgaging his house to part fund Riverdance, John McColgan could have gotten a bank loan underwritten in this way? What would that 1% be worth now? The same could be said of Paul McGuinness and U2.  Of course there will be a lot of projects that wont generate a profit, but all you need is the one success. Every venture fund and angel investor understands this.

Extend these options to any organisation – although with the advent of VR it will be mostly tech organisations – that enters into a creative partnership with individuals or organisations in the creative sector. Essentially incentivising cross sector engagement, bringing together two powerful forms of creativity, creating remarkable work,  creating jobs and generating wealth.

These are only a few of the tools – and there are many more – we could deploy now that would allow people working in the cultural sector to  actively secure finance, develop work, and deliver projects without queueing up outside the doors of the arts council, film board or local authority, and having to wait another year if their funding application fails.  It also means that the diversity of work will greatly increase as institutional notions of “excellence” will no longer control the creation, promotion and distribution of work. And all of these tools can be implemented now, without addressing the level of direct state funding.

The beauty of tools like these – assuming they are designed effectively – is that the power is returned to the artist, the organisation and their communities.  They promote networking and the development of social capital, they foster innovation, they foster public engagement. No more bureaucratic timeframes, no more inappropriate one-size-fits-all application processes.

When we think about creating alternative sources of revenue into the sector as a whole for support and development purposes then there’s no more effective tool than a Foreign Artists Withholding Tax, as used in so many other countries. The argument that the “Big Artists” won’t come is ridiculous and subservient. If they won’t come because they’ll be taxed here, that suggests that they are not tax compliant anywhere. The “Big Artists”  are paying tax in some jurisdiction – so why not here?

So the challenge of “funding” and getting that funding directly to the artist (an immediate and very pressing issue)  can  be met in any one of a number of ways, and far more effectively than through centrally controlled methods.

This is just personal opinion, but I find these options far more attractive than putting increased sums of money into an unreformed department, and an outdated and dysfunctional system.

Do we need to get to 0.6% of GDP if we have these tools? Yes! Absolutely. But lets create an adequately resourced department with effective legislation and functioning agencies, driven by an effective vision, a precise sense of what culture, arts and heritage are and how they are related,  and a clear sense of possible and desired outcomes, capable of working in partnership with the sector, as opposed to the downgraded version we currently have.

So that’s the Funding conversation. Can we get on with the real conversation now please.

As someone on twitter put it recently:

For Tourism Economic growth Entertainment Employment Wellbeing Mental Health Social cohesion Arts & Culture Work


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