An End to Arts Funding? Debate Wrap-Up

Just got back from SummerWorks’ “An End to Arts Funding?” debate between National Post political columnist Andrew Coyne and artist Nadia Ross. What follows below is a summary of the arguments presented along with my own interpretation.


Coyne – who I was surprised to learn is a former actor (he says he appeared in a satire called “Then You Die” at the SummerWorks Festival twenty years ago) – opened with an argument for the “separation of art and state.” This was a knowingly glib turn of phrase which conflates public sponsorship of the arts with state censorship of the arts by comparing it to the USA’s “separation of church and state.” Nevertheless, Coyne continued to lay out his three-part reasoning: 1) Public support for the arts is not necessary for great art to be created. 2) This is evident both theoretically and with reference to the historical record. Therefore, it is a waste of scarce government resources, which can be better spent on things that couldn’t be produced without coercing resources from the general public (what non-economists call “taxes”). To be clear, Coyne listed among such goods the police, the military, and social services for the poor. And to complete the comparison of government support for the arts to utter despotism, he compared arts funding to the French monarchy’s construction of the palace of Versailles – a monumentally beautiful building that likely couldn’t have been built under a responsible government, and yet this stunning work of art cannot justify absolute monarchy (or the forced taking of money from the French and colonial subjects to build it).

Next, he adds that, 3) state support of the arts harms both the artists and the audience by divorcing their financial relationship and commitment to each other. This is an interesting argument, which he explored more deeply in a later part of the debate. (BTW, Coyne later posted the bulk of his argument here. I haven’t read it yet as it clocks in at 23 pages and it’s already 2am.)

Next, Nadia Ross got a chance to ask for clarifications. As I’ve written before, I was suspicious of Ross’ participation, given that she seemed to concede the argument in a blog posting at Praxis, which was filled with what I called “pseudo-Marxist claptrap.” She didn’t really ask a question so much as ramble on various subjects before finally zeroing in on Coyne’s suggestion that the success of non-state sponsored artists through the ages proves that support is unnecessary because the market of today is too different from the market of 100 years ago to be a valid comparison. To which Coyne fired back that, why yes, it is different, because in today’s market billions more people are literate and have access to disposable income. (Point to Coyne on that one, if only because Ross didn’t actually make any argument for why the market is so different that non-supported art can’t work).

Now it was time for Ross to make her rambling, nonsensical opening statement. She began by recounting her time in East Berlin prior to the fall of communism, when theatres were the nightly meeting places for young revolutionaries who eventually tore down the Berlin Wall after passing coded messages in plays that slipped through the official censors. She says this could never have happened without the support of the East German state for the arts, and I was literally shaking with rage at this point less than a minute into her bullshit.

What the fuck? We’re supposed to take lessons on good governance from communist Germany? And should states finance the arts in order to cause their eventual collapse (or someone’s political agenda)? And, as Ross noted, the German theatres weren’t actually there to promote democracy – they were part of a massive propaganda campaign to support state repression, hence the censorship they had to get around. As Holger Syme pointed out to me on Twitter later, the state support was necessary since in communist East Germany, there really weren’t any privately owned spaces where people could meet, that kind of being the point of communism. (I also suspect, but don’t have the facts to back it up just yet, that the popularity of theatre under communist rule may have had something to do with the lack of other entertainment options).

Watch the video for evidence of the arts’ role in the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the lack of quality entertainment options in East Germany.

Anyway, this was all meant to show that that art needs a way around “market forces” that would have prevented artists from creating the theatre that would set us all free. Leaving aside that “market forces” were actually clearly indicating that East Germans wanted freedom (including, er, the freedom to participate in capitalist markets!), because otherwise, why would they have been showing up en masse to these revolutionary theatres, Ross went on to say that “market forces” are bad because the market doesn’t tolerate failure and experimentation.

Coyne only came to this later point tangentially in response to a question (he points out that the most successful artists have always been the ones who try something different), but what Ross is doing here is conflating “tolerance” of failure with “rewarding” failure. The market tolerates failure and experimentation all the time. That’s why Broadway is littered with high-concept flops and why Clone High only lasted one season. The difference is if you have a string of privately funded flops, you have difficulty finding future investors, whereas when you have a string of grant-supported artistic and commercial failures, you’ll probably have built up enough of a relationship with the granting bodies to continue to float by on operating grants for the rest of your career.

Anyway, Coyne took this opportunity to reiterate his point that what Ross calls “market forces” are actually just the individual choices made by the public on what they’d like to see (ie, ticket sales) and that it’s presumptuous to take this choice away from the audience.

Ross objected that she, uh, didn’t know what was meant by “market forces” because she’s not an economist (which, uh, SummerWorks? Could you not have found an artist who’s got a high-school understanding of economics at all?) but that Coyne was just wrong. No she didn’t elaborate, other than to stress that market forces are crushing us all. She also said art can be the “release valve” that reduces anger at the state and the market and prevents us from breaking out into massive violence, cracking open each other’s skulls and feasting on the goo inside. Yes, this directly contradicts her point that art is a necessary social good because it promotes revolution. No, she didn’t seem to recognise that or care. She just kept talking about how complicated the market and art and tickets are and how she can’t make head nor tails of a budget sheet and shouldn’t be expected to.

She could have contributed a very important counter-argument to the “market forces” debate but didn’t. We’ll get to that when it comes back to questions.

Anyway, the grown-up on stage returned to his point about the relationship to the audience, which was that “art defeats its purpose if it doesn’t try to find one.” The consumer, Coyne says, “has a burden of taste” when it comes to the artistic dialogue – in that the audience feedback is an important component of the actual artistic process. He accused the artists seeking to divorce themselves from the market of being repulsed by the idea of popular taste, of having an elitist attitude of knowing better than the audience what makes good or worthwhile art.

Subsidizing the arts “eliminates half the conversation,” because it makes the audience not part of the arts. Subsidizing the cost of art effectively subsidizes ticket prices, which reduces the sacrifice that an audience member must make to enjoy the art. Price, Coyne says, both rationalizes and intensifies the experience for the audience because when an audience member chooses to spend money on the arts, he chooses to spend less money on other things. Audiences have only been dwindling because the divorce of the financial relationship between artist and audience through government subsidies has led artists away from producing art that audiences want to see. Art, he says, is not alien or ephemeral to the lay person like the hard sciences.

Aislinn Rose of Praxis later pointed out, no one in the arts seems to be making the argument that artists disdain popular taste, but I’m not sure I agree with her. Ross actually was, in the way she was talking about how the “market forces” don’t tolerate experimentation and failure – presumably because the audience would rather sit through a show they like rather than one that fails.

Around this point, we moved into the question period, and, admittedly, several people in the audience conflated emotional appeals for the importance of art and the evil of the market with rational arguments just like Ross did. So maybe it was hard to find an artist who could argue this stuff rationally without just getting the people at Praxis again.

My notes get a bit sloppy at this point, but Ross started slipping into talking about how the government is really bad at giving out money to the arts. Citing the example of a ridiculously huge theatre that was recently built in her hometown of Wakefield, QC (population 10,000), which has now become a community white elephant that the artists and audience cannot support, she says the government is wasteful and a bad arbitrator of spending. (Aislinn tells me she was saying that the funding should be even more arm’s length than it currently is to prevent these disasters, but I don’t remember her actually saying that).

Ross and some audience members criticized Coyne for singling out the arts when they are a small fraction of a government budget rife with subsidies and supports for other industries. All of which, and more, Coyne opposes. At this point, we devolved a bit into a discussion of road tolls and how they distort the market which wandered far from the topic (although, interestingly, Coyne’s point was that free roads subsidise bad car use causing congestion, while at the same time, he says subsidized tickets cause under-subscription).

Aislinn asked the best question of the bunch, when she pointed out that the cost of producing theatre is so high (especially in Toronto) that full-price tickets would be inaccessible to all but the richest (she cites an indie show she produced at the LOT which had a $100,000 budget and needed to charge $100/ticket and sell out ten shows to break even without subsidies). Coyne chose to ignore this point to focus on her complaint that it’s the unconventional “weird-ass shit” that wouldn’t get made if not for subsidies. He counters that the most popular things are the weird ass shit and that instead, the experience in Canada is that grants go to the connected, established, and boring. He also points out that popular tastes often lead the critical/artistic/elite tastes, pointing out that Clint Eastwood was the subject of a homage series at the Paris Film Festival and the highest selling musicians ever (Beatles, Sinatra, Elvis) are now among the most respected artists. He says the market is constantly looking for the next big thing, the next weird-ass experiment.

Cue howls from Ross and the audience: “And who pays for the experiments?” “The rich!” (The rich, Coyne would argue, have a market incentive to search out work that would become popular; of course, if all tickets are $100+, then their search narrows to shows that would appeal to other rich people).

Later on Twitter, Coyne addressed the ticket price issue by saying that increasing redistribution (by reducing wasteful government subsidies) would put more money in the pockets of the poor, which would allow them to access the arts. There’s a daft logic to this – I mean, how much money must you give to the poor in order to make dropping $100 on a theatre ticket a reasonable expenditure for them?

To me, the issue is less about the need to subsidize the artists directly than to control other “market forces” that are restricting people’s access to art. To wit: the sheer cost of producing theatre, owing largely to union rates and space rentals. There’s little the government can do about the former (although I think producers should be willing to forgo working with union artists if they need to for financial reasons), but the government can play a huge role in mitigating the market forces at play making space rental prohibitively expensive (at least in Toronto; if you’re producing almost anywhere else, it’s much cheaper).

As a consequence of the “Creative Class” dynamic Richard Florida describes, the success of artists encourages gentrification which drives up land values, forcing up rents and driving out art venues. We need the state to police this aspect of the market (the tyranny of small decisions) to preserve spaces where art can be produced for the community at supportable rates. This can be done through minimally coercive means such as zoning permissions or state provision of venues.

There are other “market forces” at play restricting people’s access to theatre and they have to do with Canada’s geography and population and proximity to a large and loud neighbour. It would be easy enough to reduce the Quebec-Windsor corridor to a set of stops for US touring productions, but the likelihood that Canadian art (and particularly theatre) would ever reach the distant and isolated parts of Canada is small without travel subsidy. Too little Canadian theatre tours the country as it is.

For similar reasons, the market is really bad at serving minority consumers, and I believe there’s a public interest in presenting the stories of minority groups as well.

In their closing arguments, Coyne conceded that he does see a role for the state in the preservation and archiving of Canadian art (so, museums and libraries) for posterity and history, but the immediate creation stage of art remains an individual experience that should be paid for by the individual. This, I think, is actually a building point for a dialogue. Theatre doesn’t lend itself to archiving (The Toronto Theatre Database notwithstanding). Theatre itself – the live creation – is the archive.

And this is where I disagree most strongly with Coyne’s argument that art in general is not a public good. Particularly in a country like Canada where, yes, market forces make it difficult for theatre in particular to be created and disseminated, there is a huge public value in the creating and telling of our stories. Our stories document our history (even when we’re not making Heritage Minutes). They bind us together as a people with shared experiences. While, yes, we need to get better at getting audiences out to see our work, there is huge public value in this work being made.

I should note that Ross’ closing statement refuted Coyne’s repeated assertions that the “funding model implies a distrust of public taste.” On the contrary, she says, “We care desperately about the audience” and artists are constantly reaching out to them, having talk backs, etc.

So, what do you think? Are we failing to reach out to the audience because grants allow us that luxury? Do grants make art inefficient? Could art be made without grants? Does the granting system need reform? Is art a public good? If so, how should it be supported in its creation? What does the theatre scene need from the government? And if I ever submit a grant application to Canada Council and Nadia Ross is on the jury, will I stand a chance in hell of getting it now?


5 thoughts on “An End to Arts Funding? Debate Wrap-Up

  1. How frustrating. From the way you describe Ross, she sounds like a spoiled child. What you suggest is way more interesting. The idea of subsidized or zoned creative space. It would have been a far better use of debate time than this art vs state funding issue that has raged on since the beginning of time. Thanks for attending!

  2. Pingback: #theatrosphere responds to SummerWorks arts funding debate » Praxis Theatre

  3. Pingback: Can the festival system teach us market solutions to theatre? | Exit Upstage

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