Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 12 November 2019

The Great Debate: does it matter who funds art institutions?

Alexandra Chaves and Rupert Hawksley share their thoughts on how art institutions source their funding

Political activists gather for the ninth week in a row outside of the Whitney Museum to demand that the museum's board dismiss Warren Kanders, a wealthy businessman who has made a fortune selling tear gear to the NYPD and the Israeli army. Getty 
Political activists gather for the ninth week in a row outside of the Whitney Museum to demand that the museum's board dismiss Warren Kanders, a wealthy businessman who has made a fortune selling tear gear to the NYPD and the Israeli army. Getty 

Alexandra Chaves: There has been a lot of controversy lately about sources of funding for art institutions.

Rupert Hawksley: Lately? It seems to be a never-ending debate that goes back to the 15th century and the Medici family.

AC: Well, let’s try to focus on this century. In the US, eight artists pulled out of this year’s Whitney Biennial because of Whitney Museum vice chairman Warren Kanders, who is accused of profiting from the sales of tear gas (he resigned in July). Then there are American, British and French museums cutting ties with the Sackler family, founders of Purdue Pharma, which has been blamed for the opioid crisis in the US. I think these recent rejections are a step in the right direction for the art world. Artists and institutions need to be more selective when it comes to choosing who they accept money from.

RH: I’m always surprised when people say that art institutions should sever ties with the companies that fund them. The alternative is that museums, galleries and theatres will be forced to raise the funds themselves. That’s fine in principle, but in practice it would almost certainly mean charging the public more money for tickets, which would push people away from the arts. Not all arts funding is pretty, but much of it is necessary.

AC: There are other ways for institutions to receive funding.

RH: I’m all ears.

AC: For a start, governments should stop cutting their budgets for arts and culture.

RH: That would be nice, but it’s not going to happen, is it? Art institutions have to be pragmatic and that might sometimes mean shaking hands with companies we would rather they didn’t. Once the money is in the coffers, these institutions can actually get on with putting on great art.

AC: What makes you think governments won’t stop cutting their budgets? In the UAE, funding for the arts is quite robust. Activists and artists elsewhere should use this moment to make a case for art and its potential contributions to the economy. It would be unrealistic to think that outside funding can be completely cut off, but the art world needs to reassess its ties to these corporations and be more selective when it comes to its donors.

It would be unrealistic to think that outside funding can be completely cut off, but the art world needs to reassess its ties to these corporations and be more selective when it comes to its donors.

Alexandra Chaves

RH: I have to say that recent evidence doesn’t fill me with much hope that many governments are ready to prioritise the arts. And if governments do prioritise the arts, the danger is that money is then taken away from areas such as education and health care. The repercussions of refusing funding could also be devastating. You might have seen that the Royal Shakespeare Company has cut ties with BP, which I thought was extraordinarily spineless. Eight years of BP sponsorship allowed 80,000 young people to visit the theatre at reduced rates. And now what? The money is no longer there for the RSC, but BP certainly is. It strikes me as a lose-lose situation. Anyway, how are people meant to get to the theatre if they’re boycotting a petrol company?

AC: That last question is just ridiculous.

RH: I take it you’ll be walking to the theatre then?

AC: BP has been linked to several environmental disasters and ethical violations. So if you think the benefits of dealing with BP outweigh any ethical problems, how do you feel about the Sacklers? Where do you draw the line?

RH: The situation with the Sacklers is much harder to process, of course. It is appalling that the family has profited from the opioid epidemic and I would support art institutions rejecting further funding from them. But I don’t think this particular case should be used as a stick to beat all privately funded art institutions. So that’s where I would draw the line. Where do you draw the line? Who would you accept money from?

AC: I mean, let’s not accept money from conglomerates (and the people associated with them) that cause death and environmental destruction. Then we go from there. Some brands have done a good job of supporting the arts through non-profit initiatives, such as the Fondazione Prada and Fondation Cartier, which have their own independent programming. Museums should rethink their models for funding and look into collaborations with these companies.

RH: And what if I dislike the fashion industry because … it’s the fashion industry. Fur. Leather. Body image. The list goes on. Come to think of it, I might have to chain myself to the Prada building in protest against the whole industry.

AC: If these art institutions really are for the public, then the public should have a say in how they are funded. Right now, it is pretty clear who the public are against.

RH: We often demand that large corporations “give back” to society. And yet we complain when they do. Added to this, by sponsoring large art institutions, companies place themselves in the public eye and subject themselves to increased scrutiny. Isn’t that a good thing?

AC: Do you really think they’re “giving back” to society?

We often demand that large corporations “give back” to society. And yet we complain when they do.

Rupert Hawksley

RH: BP is giving £7.5 million (Dh35.5m) to four British art institutions over the next few years. So, yes, definitely.

AC: No, it’s using the arts as a way to boost its reputation and distract us from its more unpalatable activities. That worked for the Sackler family for years and some museums were happy to go along for the ride, but thankfully this wave of scrutiny is forcing art institutions to rethink how they operate. Could crowdfunding

be an option?

RH: For sure, crowdfunding would be an interesting option. But do you think that is really any different from asking people to pay for tickets?

AC: A ticket has a fixed fee. Crowdfunding allows people to make donations (big or small) based on their financial capabilities. It can also help to produce shows rather than simply gaining profits.

RH: And how do you decide which members of the public can make a donation?

AC: Maybe it’s best to keep it anonymous.

RH: There goes my plan for the Hawksley Wing at the British Museum.

Updated: November 3, 2019 04:07 PM

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