ARTS FUNDING. What binds the arts together? Penury

``In 50 years the 1980s will not be remembered as a time when the philosophy of monetarism was pursued. It will be remembered by who wrote which novel or which piece of music, who painted which picture or wrote which play.'' So spoke Sir Peter Hall, chief of Britain's National Theater, at a recent international conference held in London to discuss the problems of funding the arts in the West. Sir Peter's was an impassioned speech, aimed at underscoring the plight of ``high culture'' today in a world squeezed for cash.

``They are important, the arts,'' he said, ``particularly in the wild and somewhat barbarous society which we live in now, a society so varied that it doesn't have religion or morality to bind us together. That's why I think we so desperately turn over the masterpieces of the past for some sort of clue....''

Such poignant words aptly captured the somber mood of the conference. While there have been other arts conferences, this was the first in recent memory to have brought together arts administrators from around the world - Western Europe, Australia, Israel, New Zealand, and North America - solely to discuss the hows and whys of funding. The motivation behind the gathering? Worry.

It is a sign of the times that the conference was held at all, that the groundswell of concern over what many arts administrators see as a serious cash crisis could no longer be ignored.

The man who dreamed up the idea for the gathering is Luke Rittner, secretary-general of Britain's Arts Council. The first arts agency of its kind in the world, the Arts Council was created in 1946 under Royal Charter to serve as a nonpartisan go-between for state funds and Britain's many arts institutions (which today rely heavily on those funds for support). Its aim was to help the arts flourish and make them more a part of mainstream British life. The council later became the model for similar agencies within the old British Commonwealth and a catalyst for the creation of such bodies as America's National Endowment for the Arts.

Talking with Mr. Rittner on the eve of the publication of a report intended to bind together the many threads of the conference, it is evident the gathering did not offer any panacea. What it did do, and what Rittner says he set out to do, was to create an opportunity for people involved with arts funding to compare systems and pinpoint common issues.

``What [the conference] confirmed in my mind,'' says Rittner, ``is the similarity of the problems we are all facing. That became very clear.''

As the meeting revealed, the key problem facing most countries represented is, quite simply, a lack of sufficient cash to keep pace with both the growing public demand for the arts and the escalating level of investment needed for art institutions to flourish - or, in some cases, just to survive. As Rittner puts it: ``Everyone is now having to cope with governments that are committed to reducing public expenditure, and it doesn't matter if the government is to the right or the left; everyone is in that boat. ... [Yet at the same time] the arts have become of more interest to more people than ever before.''

The three funding systems represented at the conference were:

``Arm's length,'' as the Arts Council approach is called, since state subsidies for the arts are provided with minimal government interference;

The ``ministry'' approach, as seen in France, where there is a ministry of culture headed by a minister at cabinet level, thus linking policy and state art subsidies directly to central government;

The ``endowment'' (or American) approach where, although central government offers grants, the bulk of the arts funding must come from other sources.

According to Rittner, all three systems have strengths and weaknesses. But he is unequivocal about his choice. He feels the ministry approach brings politicians too close to artistic policy. This is a mistake, he says: Politicians are generally neither artists nor good arts administrators.

On the other hand, he is equally vehement that the American style leaves too much to chance. An arts body, he says, might have trouble raising adequate funds from industry or foundations or individuals; and the precariousness of the system becomes greater the less prestigious the arts organization.

He is therefore convinced, as a committed advocate of the arm's length approach, that the most effective combination involves balancing central government money - filtered through a third party to cover the ``bread and butter'' of arts expenditure - with local government and private sponsorship.

That an international conference on arts funding was organized by a Briton is no accident. It comes at a time when Britain, perhaps more than any other country, is witnessing intense public debate over this issue. It has been said that the arts are to Britain what the sun is to Spain. Yet during the last eight years, marked by the increasing encroachment of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's tight fiscal policies, what is arguably Britain's greatest asset has been coming under ever more serious threat. Hardly a month goes by without news of some opera house, orchestra, or drama company having to make cutbacks to keep its head above water.

A key concern of the conference's participants was the arts' increasing reliance on private sponsorship - something the Thatcher government advocates.

Although Rittner is a well-known supporter of the Thatcher line, he warns all governments that ``if you put pressure on industry and business corporate sponsors to the point that you're saying to them, `you've got a duty to support the artistic life of the country,' then you're in danger of killing the goose that lays the golden egg. Business does not have a duty to support the arts. Business has a duty to make a profit. ... I do think the government has a duty to support the arts. I don't think business has.''

Rittner insists he would welcome increased state money for the arts, but it's just not happening in most Western countries. The basic problem, he says, lies not with the views of Thatcher or any other leader; it runs deeper. ``There just isn't the political will to really see the arts as an absolutely central part of national life and to fund them accordingly,'' he says.

Rittner believes there are votes to be won in the arts, if only politicians would realize it. He notes that in Britain alone, for example, 5 million more people go to the theater each year than to see football, Britain's most popular spectator sport.

The conference report, ``The Arts - Politics, Power and the Purse,'' can be obtained from the Arts Council, 105 Piccadilly, London W1V OAU, England.

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