Monday, September 13, 2010

When good publics turn bad

For the last decade or so the arts have been on a roll both here and internationally. Governments at all levels have pursued the creative industries eagerly targeting educational, entertainment and social resources. Partner up has been the order of the day and surveys of public opinion confirmed what we all wanted to hear: the public likes art and better still wants more of it.

Creative NZ's 2008 report New Zealanders and the arts was chock-full of good news: 65% of those surveyed agreed that the arts were ‘part of their everyday life’, up 8% from 2005, and 86% surveyed were actively involved in the arts in some form. It was good enough to have CEO Stephen Wainwright declared that these figures not only highlight New Zealanders’ enduring appreciation of arts experiences but also supports the significant public investment in New Zealand’s arts and artists.

What a difference a year or so can make, especially when it contains a side-swipe by a massive economic crisis. Back a couple of years arts administrators in the UK certainly would have shared Wainwright’s sunny assessment when it came to how central the arts were to their own British public. Now they are probably not so sanguine. The results from a recent survey are a little bracing.

Respondents were asked how they felt about the savage cuts being made to various public sectors. Two-thirds agreed with the government's determination to cut arts funding (usually by around 25-30% but, given that Education and Health are exempt, some commentators are predicting as high as 40%) and increase reliance on private cash. But wait, there’s more. One fifth of the 2,000+ British adults questioned said the visual arts should not be given any government funding at all. As you can imagine, the UK arts lobby will be frantically busy up to the moment Chancellor George Osborne announces the results of the government's spending review on 20 October, but closures, reduction in services and job losses are inevitable and some have already been announced.

We’ve already seen a few curls of smoke here. The radical changes proposed for CNZ widen the funding responsibilities (more inclusiveness to cultural groups currently unrepresented) without dramatically increasing the funding itself. There is also a push to transfer the funding of Venice onto the private sector.

If confronted with the stark and direct choices of the British poll (would you cut funding to the arts?), as opposed to the softer questions offered by CNZ in its 1998 version (have you attended an arts event over the last year?), you have to wonder how staunch the 'enduring appreciation' New Zealanders have for the arts would be.