Home » Government Support of the Arts: Good or Bad?

Government Support of the Arts: Good or Bad?

In Edmonton, a writer’s despair over provincial arts cuts is both convincing and less so on Government arts support.

“Alberta artists have taken the latest news of a 15-per-cent cut (to the arts) in their stride”, says Marliss Weber in SEE magazine.

Andrew Rucklidge, Sleeper, 2009. Image: courtesy the artist.

She continues, “Art allows us to express ourselves, which is an innate human desire. Without access to art, without the ability to write and draw and act and make music, or consume all of the above, we seriously limit the effectiveness of our communication abilities. We also limit our ability to persuade, to entertain, to connect with each other.”

Can’t argue with that.  She makes some good points in her article, and yet, while cities need the arts in order to thrive, her insinuation that the arts will cease without government support is troubling.

Read the full article HERE.

There will always be art, with or without government support and there should be absolutely no doubt about that.

A painting by Toronto artist Douglas Walker. Image: tulippress.ca

It’s dangerous to equate government support with the existence of the arts. Government support is important to many arts organizations and artists to get their work made, but there seems to be an idea in Canada that the government owes support to artists.

Does that help or hinder excellence in art?

It’s true that artists benefit greatly from government support, especially as the market is so weak in this country compared to the U.S.

But take a classical pianist, who succeeds with talent, along with drive and determination. So it is with art. If you’re not talented, you’d be wise to consider whether to make a career out of art. There’s nothing wrong with being an artist with a JOB. Ernst Beyeler, the legendary Swiss art dealer, referred to himself as a ‘Sunday painter.’ I think too many artists rely on government support. It’s a very generous situation that Canadian artists have, and it’s in many ways a wonderful thing, but it breeds mediocrity and complacency among the visual arts.

How’s that for a controversial statement? It’s harsh, but I believe it’s true.

Ben Reeves, Dog Walker, 2009. Image: johnbentleymays.com

Does government support mean better art?  Not necessarily.

Artists should pursue art for art, not for ego or adulation. To be creative is a wonderful, and necessary. But to be famous or successful to your peers is a different thing altogether.

18 Responses to “Government Support of the Arts: Good or Bad?”

  1. Bill Hodgson says:

    I have to agree with you. There are a lot of wankers out there who’s greatest talent is writing grant applications.

  2. AA Bronson says:

    I don’t agree with some of your basic concepts. I don’t think that art is a career, for example. In most cases it is a vocation. And your idea that the art market is better in the US is laughable. It may be better in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, but the majority of artists in the USA struggle, even more so than in Canada, because there is no government funding. And the marketplace has an uncanny ability to influence what artists make, because they MUST sell to survive here… so even in New York, the so-called “healthy” marketplace has very unhealthy effects. The pros and cons of funding (and different kinds of funding) involve a much more complicated picture than anyone seems willing to explore–sound bites are always better!

  3. e carson says:

    The universal spirit of creativity, the ability to create in whatever form, is what defines active life and in the case of human beings, their thought from deep subsconcious levels to conciousness , and thus to the external world as it exists. This defines the evolutionary process and simply can be called art. Whether the exterior construct of society called government should “control” or “support” art is a question that relates to other societal conditions. Art exists because we are a part of evolution….and will forever express, with or without “government support”.

  4. sally says:

    If you left the funding of classical music to the free market, do you think those talented classical pianists would have anywhere to play?

    Who are these complacent, mediocre artists living high on government handouts? I’ve never met one. I do know a lot of very hard working artists (almost all of whom have jobs to pay the rent) who occasionally get grants in order to realise their projects. Typically, a really amibitious body of work requires some kind of up-front capital. Think of all the great Canadian artists that have been celebrated on VoCA over the years and then ask yourself if they would have been able to present their most exciting work without any government support. Think about the artists you know, whether they have jobs or grants or not, and think about how much time and energy they devote to making their work the best that it can be. The complacency is not with the artists, who know first-hand how hard it is to reach an audience, but with people who sit back and say that art will continue no matter what. Sure it will. And if all you want from art is a pretty landscape to hang over your living room mantle then you have nothing to fear from government cutbacks.

  5. sally says:

    not that I have anything against pretty landscapes or mantles, but we Canadians can expect and demand more, no?

  6. L.M. says:

    So you’re also advocating cutting funding to museums, art galleries, symphonies, dance companies, university art departments, art magazines etc. to foster this excellence?

    Or do you think that just Andrew Rucklidge, Douglas Walker and Ben Reeves should never ever get another cent of government funding because it made their work mediocre and complacent?

    In previous comment threads on this very subject, people have demolished your argument that artists are too reliant upon government grants, yet you persist with this inane and inaccurate assertion.

  7. Roberto says:

    The situation for Canadian artists is far from generous. Canada is a culture that doesn’t appreciate art, which other than providing a certain freedom in anonymity, is as harsh as our winters are long. Our art market is embarrassing and media coverage of the arts in Canada is pathetic. (Thank goodness for blogs). Lack of education is the main problem, or is it simply a lack of caring–a chicken and egg cycle, none the less, that needs to hatch and grow up. It is this situation which breeds complacency and mediocrity within Canadians.

    Government funding for the arts is a wonderful thing. The shame is the unbalanced reliance that artists are forced to place on government funding–one of the few signs of recognition that what we are doing matters.

  8. Amber says:

    There is a market for commercial art as well, and government funding contributes to that greatly. There would be no Canadian animation industry without the tax credits incentives in place in provinces like Ontario, Newfoundland and British Columbia. Government funding (or the lack thereof) certainly contributes to a thriving art community and the ability for an artist to have a job doing what it is they are good at. I would rather see an artist have a job doing commercial artwork than see them at a checkout counter behind the till. Alberta only offers direct grants rather than refundable tax credits, and so there is essentially no industry in the area.

  9. kat Citroen says:

    The romanticism of an artist laboring away in his garrett while starving is an old fashioned idea . I dont know ANY artists who don’t work at other things that actually pay the rent etc. unless they are heirs to a fortune. The question of the cream rising to the top because of hard work is also in question as it really is about who you know, what parties you go to, and how many connected people you can befriend, a huge part of the Art Scene is about maneuvering and tenacity. And then of course there is the Granting process. It has been made clear to me that one must keep applying so that the Granting Boards know who you are(?)

  10. Amrita says:

    Glad you brought up the subject, & I’m enjoying the comments as well. You asked if govt support of the arts helps or hinders arts excellence. I think this is largely contingent upon what type of support.

    Supporting initiatives for people to view, exhibit and critique art can foster a culture that organically improves the level of art produced.

    If you’re talking about grants specifically, the system here is highly subjective — I’ve seen money being doled out to very mediocre artists simply because they knew the jury.

    Your statement about the idea that govt owes support to artists seems to me an oversimplification. Many artists and art supporters feel that governments already subsidize many other industries, and that art should be no different. There is clearly an economic and social benefit to having a rich arts culture but the mechanics of how this is supported needs some realigning.

    I think it would be good to have some follow-up posts that look at how art is supported in other countries to truly answer your question.

  11. Nicholas Brown says:

    Most of the issues I had with this post have been addressed by the other commenters, but I’m just curious about your logic for the images you’ve selected. How exactly do they advance your argument?

  12. Zin Taylor says:

    Once again, AA nails it.

  13. Leah Sandals says:

    Hey there,

    I think my views are covered by the comments of many others here.

    Basically, it’s worth being more specific about these questions — it feels like you were trying to get at grants for artists specifically, and perhaps even more specifically issues around jury tastes. (?)

    But the question was actually posed so as to include museums, art publications, nonprofit galleries, art education outlets, etc — all cultural organizations that depend heavily on government funding, and that, to my mind, the government should definitely support. Access to arts still needs lots of improvement in this country, as do other supports for the arts.

  14. “There will always be art, with or without government support and there should be absolutely no doubt about that.”

    The persistence of artists despite economic precarity should absolutely not be doubted. Neither should it be offered up as a reason to deride or call for an end to the scant funding for artists and arts institutions that exists.

    This article carries the political fume and intellectual weight of something a Blogging Tory would write.

  15. AC says:

    Thanks for the comments, everyone. And Leah, yes I’ll flesh this out in a future post. I’m not saying that government support for individual artists is a bad thing. I just think that there are issues – flaws? – with the system that it’s useful to discuss. Neither the Canadian system nor the American system is perfect, and they differ in significant ways. Each system seems to encourage a different type of attitude in artists. Stay tuned for another post on this topic.

  16. Murray says:

    Related to this topic, there is an excellent post on Edward Winklemans blog. And be sure to read the comments.


  17. Hey Murray, by what standard would you say that Winkleman post is excellent?

  18. Earl Miller says:

    Yes, people would continue to produce art if there were no grants. There just may be no magazines like the one AC works for or public galleries may be selling lemonade to come up with an exhibition budget.

    Frankly, I would not want to live in a country that gives no money to the artists while funding the occupation of Middle Eastern countries without an exit strategy

    If government grants ceased I would leave the country. One can already rent an apartment in a more culturally supportive city than Toronto for half the price. I would think many others would do the same. Even cities once culturally off the radar are attracting artists: artists are buying up houses in Detroit for $100-$2000. Here in our Richard Florida showcase we need all the money we can to survive amidst the lookalike condos.

    Canada is culturally off the map in the visual arts. The government must give artists incentive to stay here. The Nordic countries have figured this out. Whether or not there are flaws to the grant system we absolutely need it. And frankly there are lot less flaws to the grant system than to a Saatchi monopoly that promotes shock and awe art over work with a quiet, lasting quality.

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