In the Telegraph online article by Sir Ncholas Hytner and Nick Starr, Hytner quotes the Director of the British Museum Neil MacGregor stating that the ‘British Museum was founded and funded by an Act of Parliament opening in 1759 with the aim of giving the British citizen an idea of himself and of his place in the world.’ (I feel sure that includes herself.) Two and a half centuries later it could be said that the opening to the Olympic Games did much the same thing, albeit temporarily, in providing a feel-good factor for the British people and showing the world what we have achieved socially and culturally.
Maria Miller, Culture Secretary, made a keynote speech at the BM touching on issues of funding and the creative economy, she went on to state that the creative economy in this country employs 2.5 people and makes up 10 per cent of the overall economy. According to Hytner and Starr the Germans spend three times as much each year as our government will spend over the five year term. In the US they foster the arts though private philanthropy, but that turns out to be less effective in generating income than state subsidy.
I have always seen British art and design as a jewel in our crown and there are strong economic arguments in favour of continual funding for the arts. Every subsidy repays its initial outlay many times over and our culture and vibrant arts environment is a significant and quantifiable draw to tourism and investment in the UK. Hytner and Starr push for systematic investment in the arts and mount a call for continued risk and experimentation. The arts are often contentious; more so in times of economic stringency.
So how is the current restrictive climate affecting creative practice? I have friends/colleagues who are writers, artists and designers. These creators sell their work directly to the public through galleries, design outlets or via the Internet, writers to magazines/newspapers (national and local) independent bookstores or the Internet. All are finding it increasingly hard to make ends meet. Most supplement their meagre income through teaching and workshops. While no one is foolish enough to go into the creative arts for the money, in the past writers and artists have muddled along applying various strategies to the conundrum of how to make a living; teaching has always played a part and sometimes there are grants, either from the Arts Council, public authorities or charitable bodies. Most require an obvious public benefit (it is other people’s money after all) some are narrowly focused on a specific region or group.
I have noticed that caution and risk aversion is rife, experimentation is out. In a tough economic environment it is only natural that those commissioning creative work fear the censure of the public and/or the organisations whom they must satisfy. It is understandable as expenditure must be justified and the outcome assured. Alarmingly the expectation of working for no fee is becoming increasingly commonplace.
A journalist friend, with an extensive track record in the national media, was surprised to find far younger women in roles at national magazines that previously would have taken years to ascend to. She soon discovered that these young journalists were Interns, paid nothing more than their train fare, if they were lucky, and living at home free with their parents in the hope that they might get a real paid job. This has a two-fold effect; the young journo is frankly exploited (a daughter of a friend did this unpaid work for two years) and it presumes that all parents can afford to keep their adult children at home, which many cannot. It seems that there is a generation coming up who are paid nothing, pushing out a generation too young to retire and too old for a career change and who have previously made their living from their creative enterprise.
This notion of not being paid stems in part from the many free resources available via the Internet. Downloads that are apparently free. I say apparently because somewhere along the line advertising is funding this free for all. Just what is filtering back to the creators? The music industry suffered first and now this attitude is prevalent in many spheres.
I am considering adding to my e-reader catalogue by publishing some short stories. Today I looked at what authors were charging for short stories on Amazon and was shocked to find that many are there for £0.00. Really, your work is worth nothing? What prompts any serious writer to value their creative output at nil? Perhaps these aren’t serious professional authors, possibly they are hobbyists who write purely for pleasure and hold down jobs that pay for food, heat and light. If so there are an awful lot of them. It begs the question; in what other area of endeavour would working attract no monetary value? An electrician has just come to my home to provide an estimate. I am quite clear that this is a transaction, one that will involve my paying for his skills, experience, equipment and time.
If the provision of entertainment and cultural enhancement becomes free, where will it end? Not with exciting, vibrant arts and culture. I wonder how many people have ever visited a country that is less than replete in culture. I have and it is dreary. Because we have a myriad of cultures sitting aside our ancient history and our iconic buildings, historic and contemporary, we enjoy a positive smorgasbord of culture. It is hard then to imagine how dull life is without the enterprising creators who challenge our perceptions and stimulate our daily lives.
It is not just our great cultural institutions that need financial support and encouragement, it is our remarkable creators of literature, art and design, whose extraordinary diversity and talent is to be celebrated and supported. As Maria Miller the Culture Secretary stated we must 'make the economic argument for continued funding.’ The report by the Centre for Economics and Business Research states ‘…the arts help boost national productivity by developing critical thinking and creative problem solving.’ The arts also return every £1 of subsidy with £7 to the GDP, a higher return than the health, retail and wholesale industries. Currently we have a festival in Norfolk and Open Studios, in a small way purchasing work from an artist, or attending an event is a direct way of valuing and encouraging our artists and creators. Paying our creators a fair rate for their talents should be the norm, not the exception. Believe me, dreary is not the way this vibrant, creative country of ours wants to go.