Keeping arts in the black can be a risky business

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One of the most interesting conversations about the arts this year didn’t take place on radio or at a summer-school panel or in a subcommittee hearing or at MindField at the Electric Picnic. The conversation took place on Jim Carroll’s On The Record blog under a post about Arthur Guinness Projects.

From The Irish Times

By Una Mullally

Arthur Guinness Projects is a marketing initiative by Diageo to give some creative ideas and people funding. It required everyone to be in competition with each other, hounding their friends, family and whoever else over social media to vote early and often – every day in fact. Now the voting is over, and plenty of people are walking away empty-handed after doing some free PR for Guinness over the course of the campaign: the collateral damage – or benefit – of brand-based competitions. Some others got funded.

Arthur’s Day

Guinness has a free pass in Ireland. We shove pints of it into the hands of dignitaries and clap like seals when they take a sip. Arthur’s Day, a way of getting young people into pubs in exchange for concerts, is coming up. While you can’t blame Guinness for people being so stupid that they’ll get drunk in celebration of a genius marketing campaign, you can blame Guinness for facilitating it.

The real cause of Irish drunkenness isn’t nice stout, it’s a much deeper irresponsibility. But when alcohol brands go all Mrs Doyle on the public, winking “go on, go on, go on” through sports advertising and the branding of music festivals, comedy festivals, film festivals and everything else they can get their hands on, then they have to take a certain amount of responsibility for customers getting wasted.

But there is a bigger issue here. And that’s who funds the arts, now, and in the future. There is a trend in marketing to create touchy-feely “authentic experiences” that “bring people together” or “foster creativity”. I long for the days when mobile phone networks just wanted me to switch and not set up a DIY cinema in my back garden for the benefit of my community. I yearn for a time when beer brands just wanted me to drink their products and not find me my dream job. I wish upon a star that soft-drink companies depended on me being thirsty, not on guilting me into flying friends home from the lands to which they have emigrated.

This activity shows the desperation of brands to integrate themselves into our lives and attach a greater meaning to what is just “stuff”. Brands want to own bits of our lives. Beer brands battle to own live music. Mobile brands want to own comedy. And a step on from that is that a brand no longer wants to own art, but creativity itself, in the way that Red Bull does not strive to own Formula 1, but velocity. Arts funding is strapped. Artists are desperate. Brands are filling the hole. But it’s a risky trade-off.

Widespread apathy

Those in the arts have been careful not to squawk too much about tough times. There is widespread apathy towards decreasing arts budgets among the public, because next to increasing class sizes, cuts to benefits for carers and people with disabilities, and hundreds of thousands of people being shipped off to London and Sydney, it seems quite trivial.

It isn’t trivial, obviously. Our art is who we are. People say it’s not life and death, but it is both life and death, and everything in between.

I can only imagine that officials at the Department of Arts and the Arts Council do a little jig every time a brand jumps on board some cultural enterprise, because it’s a few more bob they won’t have to spend in funding. But the debate about corporate funding versus State funding creates a false dichotomy. There are other ways. If big companies are making hay while our corporate tax rate shines, then make them pay. Want to set up in Ireland? Then you are going to have to be of benefit to our citizens. Think a wealth tax is a good idea? What if it was channelled into specific funds artists could draw down from? Patronage, foundations and making the rich give anonymously are things we’re terrible at, but other countries, France and the US especially, seem to have a hold on them. Let’s learn from that.

Brands are not under any obligation to fund the arts and, if they do, they are under no obligation to sustain funding. If the arts start to depend on funding that can be whipped away as soon as someone in a boardroom somewhere has another bright idea, then we’re in trouble.

I have absolutely no problem with artists exploiting the marketing budgets of brands. As a former colleague of mine in the Sunday Tribune used to say when PR people showered journalists with freebies in the hope of some free coverage: “astound them with your ingratitude”.

The real power will always lie with the artist. The artist has what the brand wants. Art is sacred. Marketing is just about getting people to buy stuff they don’t need. Their “synergy” is never going to be the world’s happiest coupling, but which do you think has more value?