In tough economic times, funding for the arts is always particularly vulnerable. This recession, with its unprecedented public spending cuts, has been no exception. Local authorities around the country have cut funding, often to smaller cultural organisations which have the least room for manoeuvre. Writing for the RSA Journal, Diane Ragsdale, researcher and ex-director of a Seattle arts centre, discusses the attention being given to the philanthropy-based arts funding model that allegedly underpins the US cultural scene. Jeremy Hunt launched a government philanthropy action plan in December, seeking to boost giving to the arts on the basis that private generosity has been underexploited. Yet Diane Ragsdale rightly questions whether the US system is all that it seems.
She suggests that all is not well with US arts funding. In 2008, 41% of nonprofit arts organisations in the US couldn’t balance their budgets. Only 4% of philanthropic donations went to the arts, a proportion that is in decline. Participation levels have been going down steadily since 1982, when direct government support ceased. And it is the small, community organisations which have suffered the most, lacking a wealthy supporter base. The result? An arts sector dominated by “an upper middle-class cultural elite”, in which long-term community engagement and benefit through culture does not feature.
Is this the way we’re going in the UK? There’s a serious risk that our uniquely active, creative and diverse cultural sector is heading on a similar trajectory to the US. Kettle Partnership has set up the Culture Global project to help arts organisations link more closely with their audiences. As Diane Ragsdale points out, the internet offers new possibilities, from micro-philanthropy to genuine, two-way collaboration with audiences. We hope to connect smaller organisations, where the need for new ideas is greatest but capacity is most stretched. We will link cultural organisations to international peers facing the same problems, potentially just a click away. In a time of funding shortages, two-way audience relations may be the most important weapon organisations have at their disposal.