Why are artists poor? And, according to reports in Ireland, getting poorer? According to the official narratives artists and their art are a core component of the Irish economy and society. According to that narrative art is good for everybody’s wellbeing and is a cornerstone of tourism and soft diplomacy. Every time an award is won or a film starts principal photography there’s a politician standing by for a photograph like a proud parent at a graduation. Despite all this the income goes down and the cost of being an artist goes up.
Even as funding creeps up year on year it fails to alleviate the problem. The Dutch artist and sociologist Hans Abbing argued convincingly that as funding goes up more people are attracted into the funding market, so increases in funding – below a certain level – make the problem worse.
What is the root cause of this funding problem, the ongoing poverty of artists?
Its a mismatch.
We live in a neoliberal, market focused, capitalist ideology. It doesn’t matter what party forms government the ideology remains constant. Our civil service is driven by it and our politicians are ordained in it. Our state expenditure is about 24% of GDP – one of the lowest in Europe – a key indicator of a neoliberal state (The US is about 35% and the EU average in 2018 was about 45%). We idealise the “free market” and revere the priesthood of entrepreneurship.
Unfortunately for artists the cultural sector, the cultural “market” if you will, has been built and funded on a centrally funded welfare state model. Even artists believe that this dependency on centralised state funding is the only way of doing it. This “market” is penalised by VAT regulations, it has no effective tax regulations to stimulate private investment in any form (with the exception of the Audio Visual sector which claimed over €90 million in tax based investment in 2018). The sector is asked to subsist on a highly competitive centralised source of funding with no framework to stimulate additional investment while the market itself is continually eroded, and yet simultaneously we are asked to to behave in a more “professional” and “businesslike” fashion.
In short, there is a mismatch.
A mismatch between the dominant ideology and the funding mechanism. As a result of that mismatch arts funding sticks in the ideological throat and governments cannot increase the funding because they do not believe in the funding mechanism. It contravenes an article of faith. It’s like asking someone to play professional golf with a football.
Consequently, all the lobbying for additional funding, for parity with EU partners, all the anger, disappointment and outrage will fail. It will fail because the policy makers and politicians don’t believe in the funding mechanism they have inherited and manage. They don’t believe that this is how things are done. Look at housing; at health; at education.
The solution, the strategy, is to not ask for more state funding. It is to ask for equality of opportunity, for a level playing field for arts and business.
Business has Enterprise Ireland, the IDA and the Local Enterprise Offices , so let us keep the Arts Council, Culture Ireland and the Local Arts Offices and their funding, Let them be the development and advisory bodies they were set up to be.
And then let’s look at the other method for moving money around an economy: let us look at Tax. Let us call for Tax Incentives on a par with international best practice. Let us extend section 481 (which costs the economy nothing if the model is correct) so that individual artists, start up companies, established organisations can secure investment independent of centralised funding sources and deadlines. Let us look at debt financing and loan underwriting schemes. Let us design and call for multiple funding models and sources that our policy makers understand and believe in. If they want us to be more businesslike then demand a comparable set of business funding tools and a working market structure for the cultural sector.
Thinking about about funding in this way is consistent with the ideology of the policy makers. It does not – or at least should not – stick in their throats. Direct funding is a problem for them. So lets offer a solution in a form and a language they believe in. If they reject it – well in that case the problem is much, much deeper.