For Canadian artists, Europe often looks like the land of plenty, where governments subsidize cultural activities on a fantastic scale. But these days, European culturati are an embattled lot, especially in the euro states now writhing under the austerity diktats of the IMF and the euro zone's own bailout agency.
While they hack away at pensions, welfare and unemployment benefits, some governments feel they have no choice but to do a hard prune of cultural spending too.
Greek cuts to cultural budgets have run so deep (35 per cent since 2009) that thieves are raiding under-guarded museums, and archeologists are running a public poster campaign, urging people to "support Greek cultural heritage against IMF cuts."
In Italy, where the IMF is still just a dark shadow on the horizon, the 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.
Paradoxically, while national governments wield the shears, European Union ministers in Brussels are proposing a vastly expanded, €1.8-billion ($2.24-billion) arts program for the whole euro zone. This could be the cultural side of German chancellor Angela Merkel's recent call for "more Europe" – by which she seems to mean more centralized control over the affairs of enfeebled debtor states.
The bailout states – Greece, Portugal, Ireland and Spain – have lost or are losing recourse to bond markets, and have no apparent choice but to bend to IMF demands. Italy is cutting pre-emptively, in hopes of staying in charge of its own affairs.
Greece and Italy were already at the low end of European arts funding before the current crisis began (in 2006, even Canada spent five times as much as Greece on culture, on a per capita basis). Both countries are rich in historic sites that have to be maintained, in a tourism market severely depressed by headline speculation that the common currency may be doomed.
In Spain, the pain has also come through troubles afflicting the savings banks (or cajas) whose philanthropic foundations have been huge sponsors of cultural activity. The Fundación Caja Madrid recently closed the 48 cultural centres it maintained around the country.
Government cuts are putting a chill on other private donations, and are jacking up already dire unemployment levels. A recent Ideas Foundation report says that Spain could lose 60,000 jobs in the labour-intensive cultural sector over the next four years.
"Big cuts in budgets for culture create a climate of despair for artists and cultural professionals," says Androulla Vassiliou of the European Commission, which has proposed a dramatic increase in the EU's centralized cultural funding. The non-legislative commission, which directs EU policy and manages its budget, wants to bump up cultural spending by 35 per cent over the next six years, with a €1.8-billion Creative Europe scheme and guarantees for up to €1-billion in loans to small cultural producers.
Culture Action Europe, an umbrella group of 80,000 cultural organizations, responded poetically, and somewhat fearfully, that Creative Europe "is an idea too great to be dealt away with just a sigh." Others fretted at the thicket of red tape a robust transnational fund operating in several languages might generate. The fate of the proposal should be known by year's end.
The EU initiative assumes that culture is not an expense, but an investment – an idea also dear to the embattled Irish government, lashed to the wheel of bailout-related austerity measures but unwilling to inflict more than modest trims to culture. It actually increased its film funding last year by 4 per cent.
"For every €1 of Irish Film Board investment, close to €10 is generated in the economy," says Irish arts and heritage minister Jimmy Deenihan. The country counts about 10,000 jobs in film production, on movies such as the Glenn Close cross-dressing vehicle Albert Nobbs and Steven Soderbergh's Haywire.
But while Dublin and Brussels are both focused on the economic side of culture, the sovereignty implications of their initiatives are quite different. A bigger EU role in cultural funding, at a time when some states are struggling, would concentrate more power in the centre, and possibly in the hands of the dominant northern contributors. Angela Merkel suggested earlier this year that Greece's budget decisions should be subject to a veto by an EU steward. Greece rejected that proposal, and with other bailout states such as Italy and Portugal, has questioned the wisdom of a Creative Europe scheme.
Germany, of course, can still pull its own considerable weight as a cultural-industries player. Berlin alone still accounts for nearly €1-billion ($1.25-billion) in government subsidies. Norway, which outspent Ireland on culture by a factor of 10 before the crisis began (on a per capita basis), can still rely on oil wealth to support its artists. The piper in those countries is well paid. In others, he may soon have to look to Brussels for money to keep playing.