Thriving Inside the Black Hole of Arts Funding
by Fotini Barka
In comparison to other state sponsored arts, many Greek visual and performance artists boast a successful professional life abroad
It may sound incredible, but over the last two decades the Greek state has spent huge amounts of money on culture. Hundreds of millions of euros were budgeted each year (some €450- 500 million on average) to subsidise a broad and disparate range of cultural bodies and activities, covering everything from the budgets of museums and state theatres to the activities of parish churches across the country. During the last twelve years that I have been reporting on culture, the public debate has always been about the low percentage of the annual budget of the state allocated to the Ministry of Culture – barely 0.7%.
“How can a country that considers culture to be its ‘heavy industry’ provide such meagre funds to the relevant ministry?” That was the standard allegation about which tons of ink flowed. Of course, there were no hard facts to back this up – was it really true? Was culture the ‘outcast’? Unhappily, the figures we have today do not point in that direction. On the contrary, they reflect an incredible orgy of thoughtless spending and squandering which rendered culture ‘poor’ in terms of vision and institutions. Now that the party has been hastily wound up, the pathologies surface one by one to demonstrate that culture had its own huge ‘black hole’ as well.
The main responsibility lies with the political leaders of the Ministry of Culture, who proceeded without the slightest interest in drafting a long-term, consistent cultural policy with clear objectives. You see, petty political interests had found their way into culture as well. Each change of minister led to changed priorities, i.e. subsidies. Policy was dictated by who the voters were.
The recipients of subsidies had got used to swanning into the minister’s office to secure – what else? – money, thus unconsciously perpetuating non-transparent methods of fund allocation. Those who have vision and talent have been able to survive; but there are many others who have been running museums, foundations and organisations for all these years who can’t accept that they can no longer consume and must start producing something at long last instead.
For instance, it took the success of the new Acropolis Museum for us to realise that it is possible for Greek museums to earn enough revenue to cover most of their fixed costs. Yet instead of applauding this new model of museum-running we embarked on a campaign of passionate slander, undermining it. How else can one describe the announcements by the Society of Greek Archaeologists and some high-ranking officials of the Archaeological Service, who talk about the new museum being a “profit-making cash register”, adding that this is the way to run “commercial enterprises, not cultural institutions”?
Ours is the country with possibly the highest number of museums in the world – almost 500, if not more. They have sprung up like mushrooms around the country, and no one seems to have ever wondered whether the people who established them had carried out even a rudimentary feasibility study. Nevertheless, these museums were subsidised for all those years.
Even the Acropolis had escaped our notice. Billions may have been spent on restoring the Sacred Rock – and quite right too. But how can we explain the fact that we discovered only last year, and could hardly believe it, that there is not a single sign in English to guide the tourists around the monuments of the Acropolis? What heavy industry have we been talking about for all these years?
Something else was heavy: our ignorance of our deficiencies. We had failed to notice –but, again, discovered this only last year – that out of 170 sites that charge for admittance, 117 lacked such basic visitor amenities as drinking water, toilet facilities or even a simple leaflet. We were never bothered by the gradual fall in the numbers of visits to museums and archaeological sites, or even by the miniscule figures of return visits to our monuments. Given these facts, it’s a wonder our museums had not been robbed earlier!
Now let us move on to what we have come to call contemporary culture, where the champion is the theatre. Over the last decade, theatrical subsidies averaged €3 million per annum. Add to this the funding allocated to the two national theatres (in Athens and Thessaloniki) and the regional municipal theatres, and the total exceeded €21 million every year! The total number of subsidised theatres was over 70, a particularly high figure even by European standards and for much larger countries. I don’t think that Britain’s Arts Council provides anything like that kind of funding to British theatre. The thirty-two-year-old system of theatrical subsidies never worked properly. In all my years as a reporter I remember the troupes protesting at the end of each season about delayed payments and the state’s degrading behaviour towards them. They were right; the system itself turned them into beggars and shredded both their professional and personal dignity.
The failure to adhere to a specific schedule had additional repercussions as well. The state’s control over the use of these subsidies was rudimentary, and several troupes received funds for projects that were never staged. Moreover, it is no secret that as ministers and governments changed, the names of certain theatrical companies appeared or disappeared from the list of subsidies. Yes, we should not hesitate to say that the system was fraught with favouritism and a lack of transparency.
The list of the subsidised is long. I shall stop at one more example, that of the Hellenic Foundation for Culture, established twenty years ago to play the same role as cross-border cultural institutions like the British Council, the Goethe Institut and the Institut Francais. Alas, after two decades it has not made its presence felt and has failed to earn the respect of expatriate Greeks. Given the absence of any kind of domestic cultural policy, perhaps it would be too much to expect a ‘foreign cultural policy’. Nevertheless, the Foundation received on average €2.5 million annually.
Yet there are also some ‘poor relations’ in the area of culture, and these are the visual arts and contemporary dance, which are truly underfunded in Greece. Their work has enjoyed little support, with the necessary infrastructure either non-existent or homeless (see for instance the National Museum of Contemporary Art). And yet in comparison to other arts, many visual artists and dancers/choreographers boast a successful professional life abroad. Especially in the last decade, the generation that studied abroad may not have had the opportunity to see healthy institutions in Greece but they were able to make their own way, with spectacular results, appearing in major exhibitions, museums and festivals and securing awards and recognition.
Could it be that we needed a crisis after all?