Why there are no cash cows in European arts funding

As the European Union announces its latest grants, applicants find the barriers to success getting higher

If you want money for culture from the European Union (EU), the saying used to go: “Try the agriculture budget and forget the rest.” It was an unfair aphorism but there was more than a hint of truth behind it. The agriculture budget has always been enormous compared with any other in the union’s gift and, believe it or not, these days you can access it for the arts. You need to work with local and national government, as with all the main social and infrastructure funds, and make sure your venture is part of a rural development and conservation project, but the opportunity is there. Just don’t try to pass off the new concert venue or art gallery as an olive grove or a flock of sheep. Unlike the “good old days” of the 1970s, that tends to lead to tut-tutting from the Court of Auditors.

Before 1992, it was not, in theory, possible to get money for the arts from the European Commission because there was no legal basis in a treaty. In reality, that did not matter too much. There were always routes. For countries joining, there were integration and enlargement funds; for member states, there was money for fixing and building, supporting integration and promoting the European ideal. Cardiff’s St David’s Hall, a performing arts venue, was built like that. The idea for a European City of Culture was dreamed up, it is said, by Melina Mercouri and Jack Lang (celebrity Greek and French ministers of culture respectively) like this. The European Community Youth Orchestra gave its first performance as early as 1978—the idea went through the European Parliament four years earlier—and the European Union Baroque Orchestra was formed as part of European Music Year in 1985. Both have always been based in the UK.

Cultural takeover

By the time the Maastricht Treaty was signed in 1992, networks of arts organisations were looking to the European Parliament for support and getting it—though not as much as we would have liked. Carla Delfos started the European League of Institutes of the Arts, linking all the arts schools, and I pulled together the European Forum for the Arts and Heritage—now renamed Culture Action Europe—in the years before the treaty’s adoption.

That treaty, with a clause acknowledging culture in its own right for the first time, should have been the start of investment in the artistic life of Europe. However, Maastricht, and all the treaties since (Amsterdam, Lisbon), were hamstrung to a degree that has become even more of a handicap today.

National politicians were (and are) terrified that the EU wanted to “take over” their national cultures—largely, I suspect, because it is the one thing that gives them emotional, as opposed to administrative, legitimacy. The EU, of course, neither could nor was interested in trying. There can be said to be a European cultural sensibility, and there is certainly a common cultural space, but the local has always been essential to rooting artistic practice, wherever it comes from. The one thing that artists and EU officials tend to share is the view that real cultural activity is not about national flag-waving and ersatz folk dance. Ideas and their expressions originate in one place, cross-fertilise and then spread across borders, whether governments like it or not.

Limited powers

As a result of this tension, the treaty clause only allows the EU to support initiatives that single member states could not fund on their own. Any attempt to harmonise cultural policy is specifically banned. Having said that, the EU has been extremely important in re-regulating copyright, protecting the movement of art and heritage objects across borders and reinforcing the right of countries to resist trade agreements that threaten state film and broadcasting support. It did this, cleverly, by signing up to Unesco’s cultural diversity convention as a single union, not individual nations.

In other areas, though, the scope for EU action is tiresomely limited. There is a nice phrase about helping the “flowering of cultures”, but in reality, the money can only go to cross-border co-operation projects and organisations. There is no chance of seeing the EU as a back-up for national ministries and arts councils when money gets tight. Since the financial debacle in 2008, this restriction has caused a great deal of frustration. It is hard to become ambitiously international when your organisation is going down the pan.

This is compounded by the commission’s inherent caution, which makes it treat arts projects as though they were industrial. The natural suspicion, cultivated by the overseeing politicians, is that money is likely to be wasted or misappropriated unless it is controlled down to the last euro. The irony that EU support for other areas of its responsibility is not monitored so minutely is lost. The bureaucracy involved in securing grants and then getting them delivered was always a challenge for small organisations. In the past few years, though, it has become a serious burden that can all but take over administrators’ work for months at a time.

The commission, pushed by member states, has allowed itself to believe one great fiction about the arts—that somehow they will one day become self-sustaining; that private finance or income generation will, after a few years, make grants unnecessary. That this has almost never happened is put down to bad management or business plans, not the inconvenient truth that the arts will simply never work like this. Nonetheless, the commission has now created an executive agency to implement its new programme, under which everything is treated as a short- to medium-term project.

The result has been enormously disruptive. Although member states agreed (with much kicking and screaming from the British and the Dutch) to allow an overall increase in the cultural budget until 2021, the implementation process has left many well-established organisations that are clearly European rather than national on the brink of collapse.

Some, refused support under a first round of grants, have only been saved by staff working unpaid until the second-round results were known. The combination of a lack of understanding in the executive agency, a new parliament with an inexperienced culture committee, a commissioner who is a Hungarian nationalist with little credibility, and assessors appointed by member states with questionable aptitude for the job has been close to disastrous. If the EU expects the arts to be its champion, it is going to have to try harder.

Winners and losers

The second round of culture programme grants was announced just before Easter. It offered relief to, among only 14 successful applicants, the aforementioned league of art schools and Baroque orchestra—but, as with others, only after a complete turnaround in how they approached their core work. The big winner in the far north has been the Shetland Amenity Trust, with a €1.96m project to Follow the Vikings. One rather respects the cheek of a French organisation for putting forward a project called We Are Europe under the name of Association Arty Farty and being granted €1.92m for it. For smaller projects, the success rates per country varied wildly, with Italy having nine sel ected out of 101 submitted and the Netherlands one out of six. The UK had eight out of 34.

So much for the cultural programme. As to the rest—the so-called structural funds (regional development, cohesion, social and so on)—the majority these days are aimed at those parts of Europe that have recently joined the EU or are likely to. There are plenty of programmes that the arts in these countries can apply to with a lot of official hand-holding, from small business loans to the renovation of historic buildings. However, you may lose your mind doing so. One hopes that the commission officials who came up with the acronyms JASPERS, JEREMIE, JESSICA and JASMINE for financial instruments had a sense of humour and not an interest in porn sites.

Simon Mundy is the chairman of the Castalian Pool, a not-for-profit organisation promoting cultural and political development, as well as Creative Guild. His novel Flagey in Autumn, which is set in a Brussels café and the European Parliament, is published by Hay Press this month