Media: Investing in Culture in a Time of Crisis

By Alison Smale, 02.03.2012, The New York Times One recent morning, the mail brought word of a new opera production in Marseille, and a black-and-white print from 1963 of Parisian youth by the Seine (greetings from the mayor’s office). From Perpignan came news of its cultural offerings in 2012. None of this — beautifully presented, as we expect of the French — mail was solicited. There was no hint of the worrying shortfall in arts funding that Le Monde of the same day reported stalking euro-crisis-ridden Europe. Then, this week, came the seemingly ultimate validation of French exceptionalism in culture: the award of five Oscars for “The Artist,” the silent black-and-white movie by the French director Michel Hazanavicius. And yet. Even in France, which prized its cultural offerings and their ability to impress long before Joseph Nye coined the term “soft power,” the political and economic realities of austerity are beginning to intrude. The National Assembly — the lower house of Parliament — wants to shave some €34 million, or $45 million, off a cultural budget that just last autumn the government boasted it would increase, albeit slightly. Culture is “an investment which will help us get out of the crisis, and not an expenditure that should be cut,” President Nicolas Sarkozy told an annual gathering on culture in Avignon last November. Culture Minister Frédéric Mitterrand, a rare Socialist in Mr. Sarkozy’s center-right government, is finding he has ideological allies of the left in the Senate blocking the proposed trims, which equal about 0.5 percent of the suggested culture budget (which does not include the generous subsidies for cinema, for example). Officials in Mr. Mitterrand’s ministry who requested anonymity predict that most cuts will be avoided by juggling accounts and rolling over funds for big institutions such as the Paris Opera. In this view, art, both at big venues like the Opera and smaller institutions, would survive relatively unscathed. In fact, the arts in France — and, indeed, Germany, which is increasing its federal arts budget for the fifth consecutive year — are thriving compared with European neighbors. Portugal has effectively closed its Culture Ministry, institutions in the Netherlands have suffered funding cuts of up to 40 percent, and Italy and Greece are struggling more than ever with the endless task of preserving their priceless, abundant patrimony. In France, the dispute over culture funding colored even the outpouring of pride over “The Artist.” Jean Dujardin had scarcely finished exulting over his best actor Oscar before François Hollande, Mr. Sarkozy’s Socialist challenger for the presidency, issued a congratulatory statement that pointedly praised the French system of lavishing millions on subsidizing movies. Yet those film subsidies — hundreds of millions of euros annually — are not under threat. They come from levies on cinema tickets and TV operators, noted Franck Priot, head of Film France, which promotes France as a setting for movies (both the Oscar winners “Hugo” and “Midnight in Paris” benefited from its subsidies). That kind of spending reflects the deep-rooted French belief in the power of culture to foster spiritual well-being, collectively and individually. In his chandeliered office in the Palais-Royal, Mr. Mitterrand noted in an interview that for France, where General de Gaulle created the Ministry of Culture and appointed the writer André Malraux in the late 1950s, “culture is among the essentials.” Tracing this back centuries through famed monarchs — François I, Henri IV and the Sun King himself, Louis XIV — the minister argued that, by pouring money into castles like Versailles, “in fact, they put money aside for us.” Not just via tourism, he stressed. “For each citizen,” he said, the enjoyment of art, culture and patrimony “is the opportunity to enrich his life.” “It is a support in a troubled and difficult time,” he said. “The French consider it part of the obligations of the state.” Almost every European country has treasured castles, cathedrals, old art and artifacts to preserve. But it is Europe’s 21st-century dilemma that splashing on the ancient curbs funds for the new. And Europeans — above all younger Europeans — are highly aware of the need to compete. The Chinese, for instance, may want to come ogle ancient Europe, but Europeans do not want to live in a museum. “Europe is sleeping, and China is going very fast,” said Krzysztof Candrowicz, director of an art center in the Polish city of Lodz, noting the speedy development of Chinese art. “We are not moving this along in the way we should.” Noting a number of what he called stale events or over-bureaucratic procedures to tap European funds for culture, the Polish art director mocked what happened in 2009, tagged the Year of Creativity and Innovation. “So what did we do?” Answer: “A conference.” No action. Mr. Candrowicz was speaking at another conference — an event for 40 Europeans under 40, hosted in part by Mr. Mitterrand, to ponder the Continent’s fate. A panel on culture — which Kathrin Deventer, secretary general of the European Festivals Association, wryly noted “is always coming last” — revealed broad concern that Europe is not conscious enough of this big advantage. “The interesting thing about culture is that people either see it as very important, or they don’t see it at all,” noted Marietje Schaake, 33, a Dutch member of the European Parliament who specializes in culture and education. Keeping culture and technology on the agenda in equal measure is also increasingly difficult in a digital age, she noted. In France, in particular, there is a feeling that young people have been alienated by the Sarkozy government’s singular fight against Web piracy and illegal downloads. When Mr. Sarkozy recently offered traditional New Year’s wishes to the cultural world, in a ceremony in Marseille, for example, he was heckled over the cost of the ceremony as he undertook a strong defense of his anti-piracy law, which is now yielding unpopular prosecutions. “The difference between Mozart and a contemporary creator is the author’s right,” Mr. Sarkozy insisted. “Today, thousands of clicks by pirates in effect could take the place of capricious princes” upon whom the creators of old depended. “Culture should not suffer from the deregulation of the new world.”