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What do you think about the arts? Now 100,000 beer mats are helping to promote Arts Council England's 60th anniversary debate.

The Sage

What do you think about the arts? Now 100,000 beer mats are helping to promote Arts Council England's 60th anniversary debate.

There are people who are passionate about the arts, some who occasionally go to the theatre or a concert and others who say they are not at all interested - though probably listen to music, see the odd film or dip into the occasional book.

The people at Arts Council England believe the arts matter to many more people than would let on.

But they would say that, wouldn't they?

Their job, at arm's length from government, is to develop and promote the arts across England.

Between 2006 and 2008 they will invest £1.1bn of public money from government and the national lottery into the arts.

The arts, they argue, have the power to change lives and communities, and to create opportunities for people throughout the country.

Mark Robinson, executive director, Arts Council England, North-East, says the transforming power of the arts is most obvious in this part of the country.

You can see his point. Try to imagine the region without The Sage Gateshead, Baltic, Seven Stories, the National Glass Centre, Live Theatre or the Angel of the North? A little over a decade ago we didn't have any of them.

Where public money has led, private investment has followed, with new art galleries and music venues springing up.

As part of Arts Council England's 60th anniversary celebrations it has launched its first ever arts debate.

Mark Robinson says: "The arts debate is a unique opportunity for us all to debate the principles that should guide public funding of the arts. It's very exciting. Opening up the debate in this way may create some entirely new possibilities for the arts in England. We've already learnt a huge amount - now we want you to have your say."

The art debate has been publicised via posters on billboards, buses and the Metro network, and also through The Journal's Culture magazine.

Now the invitation to take part is being extended via 100,000 beer mats distributed among pubs in Newcastle, Sunderland, Gateshead and Middlesbrough. The beer mats pose questions about modern art, theatre, public art, music and dance and invite responses via the website www.artsdebate.co.uk


Arts Council England is asking five key questions:

What do you value about the arts?
What principles should guide public funding of the arts?
What are the responsibilities of a publicly-funded arts organisation?
When should an artist receive public money?
Should the public be involved in arts funding decisions?

But if you have other matters to get off your chest, why not post them on the artsdebate.co.uk website too?

Alternatively, you can write to The Journal or debate via our dedicated Culture Forum on Journal Live ... simply visit www.journallive.co.uk/cultureforum  and get talking.

In the meantime, check out a selection of responses Arts Council England have already received to the key five questions.

Page 2: Should members of the public be involved in arts funding decisions?

Should members of the public be involved in arts funding decisions?

"No. The public's role is to oversee and constructively criticise the decisions made. The decisions are, as I understand it, made by a committee where, I would imagine, achieving a consensus is difficult enough. Were this process to be distracted by the clamour of public opinion the result could be a bland compromise that would probably lead to a standardisation of creative output."

"I suspect that the question is a bit like saying should the public be involved in politics. There is no doubt, but the real question is how to get lay art lovers involved in a way that means they make informed choices and not snap judgements based on pet hates (of which I confess to many, I'd be terrible)."

"Without a doubt: we are talking about public funding! So it is essential that the public is involved ... and should be more involved in the process than they currently are. Art is a reflection of the society in which we live, and our lives can be influenced by art. It is therefore important that members of our society have a say in the artworks that will be presented to our society."

"If it's public money, then yes, but be prepared to accept that only a limited number of people wish to take part in any consultation process. If an artwork is intended for a public space, those who have to look at it every day need to be in favour of it or it is doomed to failure."

"The whole purpose of the structure of the arts council is to provide `arms length' funding, separate from, but oversee-able by, both public and government. In this way it is possible to provide funding for the kind of risky and innovative projects that we expect and are essential in the arts.

"To let the public into this decision-making process would, more often than not, give too much weight to dull, tabloid-driven opinions."

"Absolutely not. It is bad enough having committees making decisions which too often end up being pragmatic or maintaining the status quo without an extra layer of ill-informed opinion from the people who happen to get involved. You don't want the public making decisions about taxes, about road traffic issues, about capital punishment. God save us from arts funding decided by popular opinion."


When should an artist receive public money?

"It's important that public funding is available to support artists and their professional development as some work may not be commercially viable yet adds huge value to people and communities. A move away from public funding for artists would take us closer to the model used in the US - where the arts market is much more commercially driven. This could see art forms that fall out of fashion virtually erased from the cultural landscape."

"Artists (and that includes photographers!) need funding at the start - especially in the first three to five years after graduating. Less than 2% of artists and photographers last more than that time. As apprenticeship is almost non-existent now, those entering the field need help otherwise they don't stay in the field long enough to develop their talents to a point where they can represent the country on the international stage."

"We should stop funding artists altogether. We would then find out who really has the will to continue and the mountain of dross will hopefully disappear."

"If the artist has the potential to challenge our thinking or produce work of a highly aesthetic nature or both. If the artist is highly skilled in their medium and requires funding to progress or could become highly skilled with access to funding for a course, a mentoring activity or apprenticeship."

"An artist, like any other tradesman should NEVER get public money unless they give a service that the public WANT.

"And the public must be asked if they want it."

"So much mundane stuff gets subsidised and often the people who know how to play the system will repeatedly get funding."


What are the responsibilities of a publicly-funded arts organisation?

"The main responsibility is that the organisation maximises the creative product. It seems to me that it doesn't matter much whether this product is `accessible', only that there is an integrity behind its creation."

"It is important for a public funded body to ensure that works of art are commissioned and preserved for the public, bearing in mind that said works must also be in keeping with public opinion. Not an easy task."

"Put simply, to facilitate the production of good art, art that will enhance people's lives. This begs the question `what is good art?' I certainly think a lot of really bad art is publicly funded."

"We believe that arts funding should be used both to broaden the audience for the arts as well as to support artists. Over the past 25 years Bloodaxe Books (based in The Tarset Valley, Northumberland) has used its public funding to make a wide range of contemporary poetry available to readers in Britain and overseas, and our grant support has enabled us to develop projects which have helped introduce many thousands of people not just to the poets whose books we publish but to all contemporary poetry."

"To provide the highest quality arts experience ensuring everyone has an equal opportunity to engage with the work."


What principles should guide public funding of the arts today?

"Any principles underlying the funding of the arts are political statements about what it is that society believes to be worthwhile of support. All of the current principles that the Arts Council has are worthy and should continue to be supported. The maintenance of the existing artistic heritage, and the development of new contributions towards that heritage should both be a part of what arts funding is for."

"Arts Council funding principles are spot on - who could argue with more high quality work to more people, a confident diverse and innovative arts sector. The devil is in the application of these principles. I believe art needs to come out of its buildings, its comfort zones more. For lots of people the idea of setting foot in a theatre or a gallery is unthinkable. This has many and complex causes, but poverty of experience, knowledge, sense of entitlement, and resources are big factors. So lets take more of it to public spaces."

"Remind me? why should ANY public money be used to fund the arts?"

"Public funding should cease to be dominated by the interests of the professional arts establishment and by the London metropolitan elite. It should recognise the value of `traditional' English culture in the way that that of the Welsh and Scots is recognised. And I don't mean the `professionalised' community arts workers. Why do local amateur choral societies and orchestras struggle, why are brass bands treated with contempt when they are an important part of many communities' musical life?"


What do you value about the arts?

"For me, the arts provide an opportunity to breathe."

"The arts are provocative and therein lies their value. Everyone has an opinion on the arts, providing a great talking point. Participatory arts, where people are hands-on and feel ownership, provoke learning and personal progression. For me, this is the most valuable aspect of the arts - where other methods fail, good quality arts activities bring communities together for communication, achievement and enjoyment."

"...the way they encourage you not to accept the status quo, always to experiment, expect that there is another challenge around the corner; as well as a wealth of earlier attempts, a long tradition of endeavouring to `lend shape', a heritage of aesthetic effort.

"It is one of the glories of living in my own shape-shifting city of 'NewcastleGateshead' that it has decided to grow a shimmering layer of modern arts over its industrial heritage."

"I value art simply for it's existence. Art is visual proof that people are trying to make sense of their culture and community.

"I also value art for its `uselessness' and am revolted by people who think art should be `value for money'. The way people always bring up every year how many nurses could be employed if you did not put Christmas lights up in Regent's Street. Granted nurses are very important, but try not having lights one year and notice how miserable and complaining most people would be."

"I like art. It's the freedom of thought. What more could you value?"


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