Can the arts ever be free?

Saturday 21 October, 14:0015:30, LCB DEPOT, 31 Rutland Street, Leicester, LE1 IREUK satellites


Tickets £5.00 / £3.00. Available from Eventbrite or pay on the door.

Many would consider the creative freedom to pursue beauty and truth as central considerations for the Arts. However, often more pragmatic matters such as funding are major preoccupations for practicing artists and cultural institutions. Where to get the money? And will funding come without strings attached, without placing restrictions on artistic freedom and compromising aesthetic considerations and quality?

Historically, the arts in the UK has been funded largely by the state via the Arts Council. But in recent years, amidst austerity policies, Government ambivalence to arm’s length ‘hand-outs’, and concerns over lack of accountability, arts organisations have been encouraged to embrace new funding models and to prove their social and economic worth. Despite initial fears that public access to the arts would be dealt a mortal blow, the new more plural funding landscape including public, commercial and academic purses, seems to have created new opportunities. The long-running concern that too much public funding is concentrated in London is being allayed as regional arts scenes start to thrive; Leicester, for example, is set for £24.5million of National Portfolio Arts Council funding distributed across 19 Leicestershire Arts organisations. And as illustrated by the numerous visual and digital artists, musicians, comedians, writers, poets, dancers and film and video makers that are supported by diverse commercial opportunities, independent home-grown talent is flourishing, often gaining a higher national profile.

Yet some note that public funding criteria such as prioritising art being inclusive and accessible for hard-to-reach groups instrumentalises art. They fear it places restrictions on freedom of expression and downplays aesthetic quality. Others worry that academic practice and funding through academic institutions might be self-indulgent and pretentious, reflecting only the narrow tastes of obscure theorists while showcasing art that is inaccessible to a public without knowledge of the academic theories that the art is grounded in. And if art is funded through the market does this not risk producing work which is unsophisticated and forgettable? After all, if what counts is selling your art and making a decent living, effectively rewarding what is popular to the largest numbers of people, the risk is that aesthetic considerations will be sidelined to commercial concerns, and that artistic aspirations to transcendence and longevity will be sacrificed.

So how can the arts be free, creatively? If money is necessary for most artistic production, does this suggest only wealthy artists can be truly free in their practice? What are the benefits and constraints of gaining different types of economic support to carry out contemporary arts practice? Should the arts welcome the opportunity to be ‘liberated’ from the strictures of state funding and box-ticking criteria, or is this merely an apology for austerity and failure to challenge cuts to state funding? Will the market prove hostile to challenging new work and negate what some think is one of art’s vital functions: to speak truth to power? Despite some disdain for art rooted in sometimes obscure academic discourse and research, is this not a valuable means to move artistic theory and practice forward? If we do value the Avant Garde, with its desire to be experimental, edgy, daring and provocative, then how is the best way to fund it and make sure it thrives?

Grays coffee shop and kitchen with bar at LCB Depot will be open beforehand for food and drinks.