The big news last month was the campaign for and passage of a millage (property tax) in Detroit to support the beleaguered Detroit Institute of the Arts. Hyperallergic’s Jillian Steinhauer and ARTSBlog’s Kim Kober are celebrating the new legislation, which passed easily in Wayne and Oakland counties but only by a hair in suburban Macomb. The DIA took the campaign very seriously, spending an astonishing $2.5 million on raising awareness and getting out the vote, despite facing little organized opposition. It’s clearly a victory for hard-nosed arts advocacy, but I only wish that victory (and the resulting tax revenue) could have paid dividends for the entire arts community rather than a single institution, as it does in places like San FranciscoDenver and Cleveland. If other arts institutions follow suit, as Terry Teachout suggests, we could end up with an extremely unhelpful patchwork of government support for the arts whose lack of flexibility is written into the law. On the other hand, the voters in Detroit and environs have spoken, and it’s a meaningful testament to the DIA’s community relevance that this measure was able to pass. Indeed, attendance at the museum has jumped (at least temporarily) since the vote was taken. (Nina Simon, Diane Ragsdale, and Maria Vlachou have more.)

The first draft of the much-ballyhooed 2012 Chicago Cultural Plan has been unveiled. Conducted by Lord Cultural Resources for the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, the plan contains a mind-bogglingly ambitious raft of recommendations for the city’s next few decades, based on participation by about citizens in four town halls, about 20 “neighborhood cultural conversations,” meetings, interviews, and online. All in all, about 3,000 people have participated, according to the draft. This extensive process produced 36 recommendations and hundreds of potential initiatives, which, if collectively adopted, would add tens of millions of dollars to the city’s annual investment in the arts. The reaction so far has mostly focused on this level of ambition – as Chris Jones writes in the Chicago Tribune, “if half of the recommendations in the draft of the Chicago Cultural Plan — heck, even 5 percent of the recommendations — were implemented, Chicago would become an artistic nirvana without global peer.” It seems obvious that the initiatives are not intended to be implemented all together – but it seems like an effective plan would prioritize specific actions in a clear sequence, not just present a gigantic brain dump of options. There are other criticisms as well – most notably, the Chicago Reader points out that “nine of the ten priorities and 33 of the 36 recommendations are updates or restatements of items in the original Chicago Cultural Plan, commissioned in 1985.” The final version of the plan is due to be released this fall. There’s more reaction and commentary – not all of it negative – from Kelly Kleiman, Elysabeth Alfano, Tanveer Ali, and Philip Hartigan.

In other local news, the Fort Worth (TX) Arts Council has had its budget cut by 25% as a result of recent financial issues for the city.  By contrast, there’s not much going on at the state and federal level. But remember the Kansas Arts Foundation, the nonprofit that was supposed to replace the Kansas Arts Commission after the latter’s budget was zeroed out by Governor Sam Brownback? Well, it ended up raising $105,000, but surprise surprise, has not made any grants.


The real action these past few months has taken place outside of the United States, and unfortunately most of the news has been bad. Europe’s financial instability is not surprisingly having an effect on government support for culture in countries suffering from high debt, particularly Greece, Spain, and Italy. Greece’s spending has dropped 35% since 2009, and in Italy,

[T]he Uffizi Gallery in Florence is renting itself out for fashion shows, and Rome’s MAXXI Museum has been placed under state receivership. The building opened just two years ago and was feted internationally for its splashy design by architect Zaha Hadid, but after its €7-million ($8.7-million) subsidy shrank by 43 per cent, the museum could barely cover staff wages.

In Spain, the Fundación Caja Madrid has closed 48 cultural centers around the country, and analysts fear thousands of creative sector jobs are at stake. The arts are feeling the pinch in some of Europe’s richer countries as well. After suffering through a cut of 25% last year, the Netherlands culture budget is looking at potentially losing another up to another 16 million euros to meet EU debt targets, and even Finland of all places is tightening its belt (while increasing funding for sports clubs).

In the South Pacific, Australia is in the midst of a major upheaval to its arts funding system. Following a review by two “corporate advisors,” the Australia Council for the Arts is restructuring many of its programs and considering doing away with its discipline-based peer review system that mirrors in many respects that of the National Endowment for the Arts. And speaking of transition, the UK is changing culture ministers (who apparently won’t be missed) and chairmen of Arts Council England (the new guy’s claim to fame is bringing the TV show Big Brother to the Brits). Just two years after sustaining substantial cuts, Arts Council England is facing the prospect of having its administrative structure decimated, resulting in the loss of up to 150 staff members by next July. But hey, at least ACE is pioneering a new program to help encourage more paid internships in the arts!

Meanwhile, the past couple of months have featured more than their share of repression of artistic statements by conservative governments. The recent cause celebre of free speech advocates has been the all-female Russian punk rock group Pussy Riot, who were sentenced to two years in a forced labor camp for staging a 45-second guerrilla art performance at an Orthodox church. Coverage of the initial sentencing was extensive, but Jillian Steinhauer has been keeping a close eye on the aftermath of the decision. Meanwhile, officials in the island nation of the Maldives have banned mixed-gender dancing altogether and discouraged any singing and dancing at government-sponsored events, deeming such activities contrary to Islamic values. And the right-wing leadership of Hungary has actually gone the opposite route, co-opting the government-controlled Budapest New Theater so as to promote performances of an anti-Semitic play.

Finally, three very sad stories from Africa and the Middle East show how art can be grievously impacted by the absence of a functioning government. First, in Mali, a gang of Islamic fundamentalists has wreaked havoc on the historic treasures of Timbuktu. In Somalia, a comedian (yes, a comedian) was assassinated by members of an extremist group in retaliation for his biting satire of said group. And in war-torn Syria, many museums, monuments, and historical treasures are either at grave risk or are already lost, recalling the disaster that befell Iraq’s cultural heritage following the American invasion in 2003. These tragedies may seem far away, but referring to the upheaval in Timbuktu, Delali Ayivor puts it in starker terms: “Imagine a group of people who make no apologies for desecrating your history, who revel in the destruction of your identity. Envision then, the sense of helplessness, the horror as you watch them dismantle the Statue of Liberty, the Lincoln Memorial, The Alamo, Ground Zero, as they set fire to Yosemite, set off a blast that decimates the Grand Canyon.” Yikes.

Sorry to be depressing! I wish I could tell you that there was some good news for arts funding coming out of the international arts community during this period, but there seems to be precious little to celebrate. Just one of those accidents of history, I guess.

  • Maria Vlachou

    Thanks for this update, Ian. I´ve posted your post on Facebook and put a link in my blog too, so that we can find out more, also here in Portugal, about other tax schemes in the US benefitting arts organizations.