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Bearing the cost of culture

Last week the shadow culture secretary for Britain’s Conservative Party,Jeremy Hunt,promised to introduce...

Last week the shadow culture secretary for Britain’s Conservative Party,Jeremy Hunt,promised to introduce “a US-style culture of philanthropy” if the Tories come to power in the coming election. Speaking before the State of the Arts conference in London,Hunt foresaw a “golden age” of tax breaks to encourage private donations and help cut back on government spending.

“I do believe in state funding,” he reassured his no doubt partly sceptical audience,“but we are committed to a mixed-economy funding model for the arts.”

And in Paris last month the Pompidou museum was shut down by a strike for more than two weeks,because France’s president,Nicolas Sarkozy,also wants to reduce arts support.The plan is for only one worker to replace every two who retire. The Pompidou Center’s labour union estimates that the museum would lose some 200 jobs in the next decade as a result. French museums are supposed to raise money if they want more workers. In short,to Americanise the system,as Hunt is proposing in Britain.

Didier Alaime,who represents the Confédération Générale du Travail,the country’s biggest union,in its dealings with the Culture Ministry,said the other day that “the more public policies are dependent on private financing,the more they risk feeling the ups and downs of the market.” He added,“The more we’re dependent on outside financing,the less we” — he was speaking about the people of France —”control the policies that are financed.” Alaime recalled how a few years ago the Louvre relied not on public money but on a gift from Total,the oil company,to pay for the restoration of its Apollo Gallery,where now “the name of the sponsor is more visible than the name of the gallery itself.” “It gives the impression that culture is merchandise,” he said.

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Franck Guillaumet,secretary of the union for Pompidou employees,echoed that thought. He lamented how “we have to struggle against this unfortunate trend in order to preserve the French cultural exception,” as many in France proudly call the country’s brand of cultural protectionism. Increasingly,he added,“we live under a Thatcherian system in which public service and civil servants are demonised.”

The only thing worse for the French than becoming more like America,apparently,is becoming more like Britain. But Britain and France may not be so far apart when it comes to public versus private financing. For years Americanisation has been creeping in both countries and in others in Europe,like Italy and Germany. American culturati tend to idolise the Old World approach whereby governments pick up the tab for culture. But a consequence is that European cultural institutions have,compared with those in the US,next to no tradition of private giving. There are few,if any,tax incentives to entice private donations in many countries. Even volunteer work tends to be frowned upon.

Here in Berlin I often escape for an hour or two to the Gemäldegalerie,this city’s museum of old master paintings,one of the best in the world. It is a glorious gift,and I am grateful to a public financing system that in this particular case is not yet in thrall to,or is proudly resisting,the marketing strategies that have turned the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Tate Modern in London into the equivalents of Wal-Marts on Black Friday. At the same time,by freeing these companies from market forces,it allows them to answer to pretty much no one except themselves.


Even when government-sponsored culture begins with grand ambitions,the machinery of state can grind it down. Just as Georges Pompidou,France’s president,devised the Pompidou museum,his successor François Mitterrand opened the Orsay as part of an attempt to guarantee his own legacy,and then Jacques Chirac did the same with the Branly museum for non-Western cultures. (In France presidents are aspiring Medicis,with public money.)

The point? Government patronage is no panacea in Europe,admirable and beautiful though it may be in principle and sometimes in reality. Private patronage,meanwhile,can have its distinct advantages. True,strings are usually attached. But a variety of donors tend to allow an institution more independence and flexibility,more lightness on its feet.

American museum directors these days must spend their careers passing the tin cup,but by now government grants in the United States,which were always small,are beholden to special interests and awarded to recipients who will offend neither left nor right — so they offer no real alternative. In an ideal world America would be more like Europe,and vice versa.

First published on: 22-01-2010 at 02:33:18 am
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