The politics of arts funding
There will always be problems around the process when there’s a finite amount of cash available for culture projects and an infinite number of applicants jostling for those funds
By now, there can be very few in the Irish arts-industrial complex who haven’t read Nialler9′s post on Music Network’s Recording Scheme awards. If you’re in the arts game and you haven’t read it, you really should. What starts out as a piece querying the under-representation of pop, rock, indie and electronic musicians becomes, thanks to eagle-eyed readers, a fascinating expose about conflicts of interest (one of the judges is connected to three of the nine winning applicants), the mechanics of arts funding and, as you would expect, the arts equivalent of Godwin’s Law (Deenihan’s Law?) with the usual tired, sorry-ass bitching about those who get funding from those who don’t get funding in the midst of some constructive and righteous readers’ comments.
It’s the latest in a never-ending series as there have been many such pieces over the years querying, poking and fuming about how the money available in the pot for arts and culture projects gets distributed. The key problem remains: the money is finite, but the number of applicants is infinite. Naturally then, conspriracy theories abound about who gets what and why and situations like this, when there’s a clear conflict of interest involving the judging panel and the award recepients, just don’t help matters.
Matters aren’t further helped in this case when the organisation in question, Music Network, put their head in the sand, send out an explanation riddled with holes and basically hang the judge in question out to dry. As a rule of thumb, any judge or panel member should have absolutely no connection or involvement in any application up for funding. Talking about the judge leaving the room when conflict-of-interest applications come up just doesn’t wash in an age when the internet and social media calls for uber-transparency.
Yes, I know such conflicts happen, but they shouldn’t happen. Ireland is a small country – and the arts/culture world is a small scene full of connections and conflicts – yet surely it behoves a publicly funded organisation like Music Network to seek out unbiased, unconnected, uncompromised judges? It can be done. It just involves some work which these organistions are reluctant to do. Of course, given how Music Network have responded to this situation, many would-be judges will now be naturally reluctant to get involved.
Indeed, before we get into the question of judges (and it should be noted that there’s a plethora of issues around the whole area of arts funding), it’s worth parsing Nialler9′s original point about the conservatism when it comes to the type of musicians who get these awards. I’ve noticed in the last few years that Music Network’s call-for-action for this scheme does include a lot of plámásing of rock, indie, pop and electronic musicians to apply for these awards. Yet it’s clear from this year that they don’t get a fair shake when it comes to the cash.
Are Music Network really serious about widening their remit? Do they really intend to fund such projects? It’s hardly the case that they’re encouraging more applicants so that they can simply point out in post-event reports to their funders that their scheme is hugely popular, is it?
Back to the issue of judging. A couple of years ago, I spent a day in the Arts Council’s building on Merrion Square as a judge for one of its many award schemes. In return, I got a small fee, a few sandwiches and as much terrible coffee and sparkling water as I could handle. I had no connection to anything up for cash, though I don’t recall if there were advance guidelines about excusing yourself because of conflicts of interest.
Aside from feeling this was the arts’ world’s equivalent of doing jury service, I was genuinely fascinated to find out how such a process works. It turns out that the awards go to those who work with the process. In other words, the awards went to those who were as good at filling out forms as they were at creating art. The judges, and I wasn’t the only one in the room or the only one with misgivings about the mechanics, had to work with the process.
There was one applicant in particular, let’s call him Ryan, who I knew had featured year in and year out on the list of winning applicants for funding from the Arts Council and other public bodies so his application was always going to receive extra scrutiny from me (I know, a different conflict of interest). What I quickly found out when his application came up for review was that the reason why Ryan always got the money was not because of nepotism or favouritism, but because Ryan knew exactly what the process demanded. The art he was producing was as satisfactory as everyone else, but he had taken the time to study the funding process and knew exactly what to say in his application. If there were certain words or terms or phrases that the funding body wanted to see (“interrogate the arts” was the buzz term de jour at that time), Ryan had them embedded in his application. He got the cash.
It’s the process, not the judges or the artists, which is at fault here. Even though there are many different awards and schemes from many different bodies, you’ll find the same process and criteria apply across all these different platforms because it’s the only way these schemes can work. This is what the judges have to work with. There has to be a process but this means that those who are extremely good at filling out forms, who often but not always are the ones with really strong projects and ideas, tend to get to the top of the heap.
It’s the process which means that the funding bodies tend to favour the same organisations year in and year out rather than take a flyer on a brand new company or project which might not the wherewithal to be around in the medium or long term. It’s the process which means that many on the have-nots then see a cosy sense of co-operation between the haves. It’s the process, not the judges, which leads to farcical situatons where an individual judge is connected to three of the nine winning projects and had to step in and out of the room like a demented yoyo when those applications were decided.
Changing the process, though, is a lot harder than it might seem. The arts and culture administration world is a conservative one and its permanent establishment is particularly hidebound. It’s the world of the civil service, a place where change is always unwelcome and where certain clients (like the Abbey Theatre, for example) are always looked after because that’s how they roll. The permanent establishment looks after its own.
While we certainly need more investigations like Nialler9′s from last week, the answer will sadly always be the same. The process is broken but, because it rewards a certain number of vested interests, it’s not going to be changed because those vested interests control, manage and supervise the process. It means organisations like Music Network can bat away valid questions and criticisms with Malcom Tucker-like disdain, while happily sacrificing a judge who shouldn’t have been on the panel in the first place because of clear conflicts of interests. Excuses like “oh, we tried to have a different judging panel” just don’t wash and simply and subtly switch the blame to someone else. If you’re a body charged with distributing some of our tax euros to arts and culture practitioners, you really have to do better. And if you’re the main body who oversees all of this, you really have to insist that all involved do a whole lot better.