Separating art from politics

CULTURE has been in the news for all the wrong reasons lately, most of them to do with corruption and incompetence within the culture sector's state leadership.

CULTURE has been in the news for all the wrong reasons lately, most of them to do with corruption and incompetence within the culture sector's state leadership.

In the latest example, Culture Minister František Tóth was fired in March for misusing hundreds of thousands of crowns in taxpayer funds to support what his cabinet colleagues said was a PR campaign for his political party.

Culture experts say the country has undergone many important reforms since the revolution in 1989 to give people more power to decide matters that affect them, but few of these changes have had a direct impact on the arts.

"All discussions about culture have been on the emotional level, bringing no tangible results," said Zora Jaurová of Culture Contact Point (KKB) Slovakia, the national coordination centre for implementing the European Union's Culture 2000 programme.

Convinced that central government control over funding for the arts is one of the sector's greatest problems, the KKB invited international experts on April 4 to talk to Slovak government officials, artists, academics and spectators about the arm's length principle, a model for apolitical culture management used around the world.

The arm's length principle eliminates conflicts of interest by giving authority over the use of budget money to apolitical bodies called arts councils, which remain accountable through a government-appointed board of directors and annual reports, but which is also open to public inspection.

Governments in many Western European countries use arts councils to ensure that funding for the arts remains independent of politics and insider influence, working from the premise that freedom of expression is fundamental to creativity.

Cultural representatives from Great Britain, the Netherlands, Norway, and neighbouring Hungary met in Bratislava to explain how the model works in their countries. The principle is almost unknown in Central and Eastern Europe, apart from Hungary, where it originated in the early 1990's but remains in its early stages.

Arts councils have proven especially effective at spotting and fostering young talent. They also support minorities, such as ethnic groups and the gay community, that find it difficult to win government grants. Furthermore, their apolitical workers are part of the artistic scene, which keeps them on top of the newest developments.

Arts councils also enhance the exchange of ideas between various institutions inside and outside artistic circles, and connect the arts to business, social organisations and tourist agencies.

The principle works differently from country to country. Great Britain, where the model originated in 1946, remains an inspiration to other countries, and uses national lottery proceeds to fund the arts.

Norway's independent culture body receives one fourth of the country's overall expenditures on culture. With the rest going to the country's three national culture institutions, the arts council is free to focus on alternative, experimental activities.

Literature gets the largest piece of the pie, as it is seen as a method of preserving the Norwegian language.

"This goes to show how much you can do even when you are not extremely rich," says Ole-Jacob Bull of the Norwegian arts council.

The Netherlands has no state institutions, so the culture minister approves proposals from art experts and passes them over to parliament, which has the final word. This process is subject to the four-year political cycle, however, and has caused some dissatisfaction within the arts community.

"Organizations are busy filing complaints, as anyone can ultimately take their case to court," said Aad Hogervorst, deputy director for arts at the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, adding that the system will probably be changed next year.

According to the KKB, Slovak participants at the event were enthusiastic about the idea of a politically independent body deciding on arts funding. The public, however, will have to wait and see whether it becomes reality after the June 17 elections.

England: The success story

EUROPE'S first arts council originated in Great Britain and celebrates its 60th anniversary this year.

Financed through the Arts, Media and Sports Department, which is equivalent to the Culture Ministry in Slovakia, the Arts Council of England has nine regional branches. Anthony Preston is from its northeast branch.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): You come from the country that developed the model. How has it changed over the years?

Anthony Preston (AP):The arts council model in Great Britain has clearly changed depending on who chairs it and which government and minister is in power.

There have been different focuses at different times. When it was first established, it was very much about art for the people. The most recent direction has been to give it more regional identity, to move it from London, and to think about how every region of England is distinctive and what different approaches are needed.

TSS: The arm's length principle is now the norm in most developed countries. How much does it improve culture management and ensure fair distribution of finances?

AP: Finances are distributed according to all factors, including the level of deprivation. It has become fairer over the years and we have been divvying up the funds according to regional needs more than ever before.

The country's national lottery brings in more money seasonally, which goes to individuals and communities that normally would not get arts support. One can apply for a grant no matter where you are in your career. People can also view their evaluations, which makes it very transparent. And if you want to appeal the evaluation, you can do that, too.

TSS: What are the advantages of funding the arts through an independent, apolitical arts council rather than a ministry?

AP: Because the arts council has its own regional council, people take care to keep it independent of any government control. We can take our own decisions in regions that we want to concentrate and focus on. There's only a framework [designed by the government] that defines some rules.

TSS: Can an arts council substitute for a culture ministry?

AP: I think you need both. I don't think it's an either-or situation.

TSS: Why is the arm's length principle mostly applied to arts funding?

AP: For some reason, the arts are often not discussed as a function of local government. Maybe it's because there are always dustbins to be emptied and roads and health care to be provided, etc. Arts funding is, therefore, a choice. This adds quite an interesting dimension to the relationship, because an arts council must work with local government.

But there's something about the arts that makes it good to have. It helps a town's image, as well as the image of the citizens, which, in turn, attracts business. Nobody wants to work and live somewhere dull and boring. So there's an economic, as well as a social justification for it.

TSS: Why is the arm's length principle almost unknown in Central Europe? What's the situation in these countries and how can this model help?

AP:It's interesting, isn't it? The tradition here was to have government institutions that decide everything. One of the great things about the UK system is that people volunteer because they enjoy being involved in the arts, and we couldn't do it without them.

TSS: I don't know whether you are familiar with Slovakia's situation, but what model would you advise the country to adopt?

AP: I really don't know much specific about Slovakia, but I find there are some large rural areas, which is a very particular challenge. Another challenge is minority communities - how you embrace them and bring them into the picture.

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