Let’s hear it for ‘Team Culture’

The Danish Presidency launched a 12-person culture ‘taskforce’ in Copenhagen this week. Among an impressive bunch of luminaries are former European Commissioner Margot Wallstrom, and Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum.

The culture big-wigs have been given a pretty stiff challenge. Danish Culture Minister Uffe Elbaek says that he wants the Culture Team to seek examples of art stimulating “new ideas in terms of identity, community and economic growth”, and to draft a manifesto on the role of the cultural sector in the economic crisis that will be presented in June at the end of the Danish EU Presidency.

In an op-ed in the Guardian by Elbaek and Culture Commissioner Androulla Vasilliou said “Art is not only a pleasurable icing on the cake; it is also a way of thinking and a practice of working innovatively with reality that can inspire us all to do better.”

Amen to that.

It’s surely right that access to culture is more important than ever in times of economic struggle. Keeping museums, galleries and theatres open with good exhibitions and performances is an invaluable public investment.

But one of the ironies is that cultural spending is invariably one of the first sectors to be cut when governments tighten their belts. It also tends to fare less well with the public purse than sport, its sexier rival. For example, the UK government is expected to spend £24bn on hosting the Olympic games this summer. No doubt it will be a fantastic fortnight of sport and will, hopefully, have a lasting and positive legacy for some of the poorest parts of East London, but the London 2012 budget is still roughly 50 times the size of the entire annual budget for the UK’s Arts Council.

Slashing culture spending is also a real case of cutting your nose to spite your economic face. The experience in the UK, and doubtless across Europe, is that for every pound or euro in public subsidy, arts organisations generate three from the private sector. Indeed, the reality is that culture generates economic wealth in all sorts of ways, with intellectual property and tourism the most significant.

However, the European Commission wants the EU budget to buck the trend of budget cuts. Its Creative Europe project, which brings together the existing EU culture programs under a single budget heading, would allocate €1.8bn over seven years to cultural spending. This would be, in relative terms, a sizeable funding increase of just under 40% and works out at about €250m per year out of a total EU budget of around €130bn-€140bn. Not a huge amount of money in the grand scheme of things, but certainly a sum which, combined with national programs, should fund plenty of valuable projects.

It is too often the case that politicians’ lack of interest in the arts leads to a failure to articulate how art and culture contribute to a vibrant and innovative society. One of the results of this is that when budget cuts arrive, politicians think they can use the remaining funds to pick cultural ‘winners’. But really we should treat artists like any other innovator. For every big financial success, there will be failures – that is the way innovation works. Ideally, governments should treat artists like any other entrepreneur. They need to be given the  opportunity to succeed, but also to fail.

It will be interesting to see how the Creative Europe project works out. Hopefully, it will see more money going to artists and enhancing Europe’s rich cultural tapestry. After all, there is nothing wrong with art for art’s sake.