European cultural subsidies have long been the envy of American artists and arts organizations. But over the last two years, as austerity-minded conservative governments took office against the backdrop of a deepening fiscal crisis, countries across Europe have targeted the arts for severe cuts. The most dramatic changes are happening in those nations that have traditionally been the biggest supporters of culture—the United Kingdom and the Netherlands—while places that have historically been less generous to the arts are now trimming their funding to a pittance.
On the continent and in the UK, museums, art spaces and individual artists have long been supported almost exclusively with public moneys—a system that’s hard to fathom in the private—fundraising culture of the U.S. In the Netherlands, for example, professional artists used to receive almost lifelong grants and housing subsidies so they could produce art without the need for a day job, and their unsold artworks were purchased by the state. In France, there was, until recently, a special unemployment benefit, designed to tide artists over between gigs. In countries like the UK, Hungary and Spain, all art museums were once funded without any private sponsorship. All of that is changing fast.
“The greatest impact within the visual arts will be on emerging productions or new works, and mainly in countries where the contemporary visual arts market is weak,” said Luca Bergamo, secretary general of Culture Action Europe, a pan-European art advocacy organization based in Brussels. “Traditionally, in the UK, Germany, Switzerland and France there has been a solid market for contemporary art, but in Italy or Spain, where you have less art production, there will be more devastation.” (Except where noted, quotes come from interviews with Art in America.)
Although the cuts are somewhere in the billions of dollars, no reliable figures are available yet for the overall loss. “It’s a non-answerable question,” said Bergamo. “The system of cultural spending is multilayered in Europe, and in many countries you have different measures that are administered by local and regional authorities. What you can say is that wherever budget cuts were imposed, culture came first.”
What follows is a sampling of the impact of budget cuts across Europe.
The United Kingdom
In Britain, funding for the arts is supported by a mixture of what’s known as grant-in-aid from the federal government and moneys from the national lottery, distributed via the Arts Council England. In 2013, according to Vivienne Bennett, director of fine arts for the council, government funding was cut from $702.8 million in 2010-11 to $536 million in 2014-15, a loss of 31 percent. Funding from the national lottery is expected to increase, but it is subject to fluctuations.
“We are already seeing more competition from artists and arts organizations for funds,” said Bennett in an e-mail interview, “particularly with less local authority support and funding from private sources available. There is also the potential that with less funding, [nonprofit] galleries—with no box office to fall back on—will have to reduce their programming costs, which then impacts on individual artists.”
There are also budgets that are administered locally, county by county, as each municipality addresses its own financial concerns. In 2012, Somerset became the first county in England to vote for a 100 percent cut to its culture budget, a move that inspired the Newcastle upon Tyne City Council to propose the same—that is, to eliminate about $4 million over a three-year period, leaving its entire arts sector in the lurch. The council would stop funding the Great North Museum and halve its subsidy for Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, the Laing Art Gallery and the Discovery Museum.
The reason for the elimination of the culture budget in the city of Newcastle, explained a city council spokesman, was that the city has to cover a projected budget shortfall of about $150 million in each of the next few years. For the cash-strapped county, spending on primary services, such as elderly housing and care for disabled and at-risk children, he explained, was a higher priority than cultural activities.
Iain Watson, director of the Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, said in a statement, “Obviously this will have an impact on the services we can deliver to people in the region—our learning programs for schools and families, the exhibitions we stage and the work we do with community groups in the Northeast will all be looked at as we work to deal with reductions in funding.”
On Jan. 1 of this year, about two dozen cultural organizations in the Netherlands lost all of their federal funding and had to close their doors since this was their only means of support. Belt-tightening has disproportionately impacted art ateliers and residency programs such as the prestigious Rijksakademie, in Amsterdam, which lost 60 percent of its funding this year, and will be fully defunded over the next four years.
The changes were instituted in 2011, when a conservative coalition, driven by fierce anticultural rhetoric from none other than the then-state secretary for culture, Halbe Zijlstra, led a parliamentary push to reduce money to the arts. When federal, provincial and regional budgets for 2013 were finally set, the combined effect was a reduction of about 22 percent, or a loss of about $632 million from the country’s cultural sector.
“It has impacted the variety of the visual arts and the whole arts sector overall,” said Jeroen Bartelse, secretary general of the Raad voor Cultuur, or Dutch Council for Culture, which is the legal advisor to the government in the cultural field. “We have fewer organizations that produce and teach arts and we will have fewer artists in the end because they will have fewer sources of income. That’s a system change, you can tell already.”
A new government has now replaced the conservative coalition, and the new Dutch culture minister, Mariëtte (Jet) Bussemaker, is, happily, much more supportive of the arts. Still, the budget cuts already put in place won’t be rolled back; those implemented by the previous government are in effect until at least 2017.
In April 2012, Antonio Manfredi, director of the Casoria Contemporary Art Museum in Naples, made international headlines by burning paintings to call attention to Italy’s sweeping art budget cuts. “Our 1,000 artworks are headed for destruction anyway because of the government’s indifference,” he told the BBC at the time. In the same city, the Museo d’Arte contemporanea Donna Regina (MADRE) had such dramatic cuts to its exhibition budget that it simply decided to close two floors of its gallery space.
Faced with about $2.5 trillion of debt, the Italian government has implemented widespread austerity measures, and shrank its cultural budget by a third in the last three years, to $1.86 billion. Former Italian finance minister Giulio Tremonti defended the cuts by saying, “I don’t know what all the fuss is about. After all, you can’t eat culture.”
Italy has about 5,000 museums and 60,000 archeological sites, including 44 cultural UNESCO World Heritage Sites—more than any other country in the world—and its cultural heritage has suffered significant losses; the country can’t afford to maintain the ancient city of Pompeii, though it is a major tourist attraction, and there have been a series of well-publicized structural collapses at the site.
At the start of this year, Hungary’s premier contemporary art museum, the Kunsthalle Budapest, was placed under the control of an organization called the Hungarian Academy of Arts, a formerly private association that has now been made responsible for disbursing most of the nation’s cultural funding. Its head, György Fekete, has said that his group supports art with “unambiguous national sentiment.”
This was one of a series of alarming measures to affect culture since the national conservative government led by Viktor Orbán took office in 2010. It rewrote the nation’s constitution in 2011, mandating a 20-percent cut on salary spending by all its nation’s museums, and then making additional cuts to programming, acquisitions and institutional maintenance. For example, Budapest’s Ludwig Museum of Contemporary Art’s annual budget dropped from $1.7 million to $1 million in 2012.
János Szoboszlai, head of the department of art theory and curatorial studies at the Hungarian University of Fine Arts, Budapest, said artists, curators and museum directors are “afraid” when they see this aggressive change. “All the efforts we’ve made over the last 20 years to introduce contemporary art to Hungarian society are endangered,” he said. “Theoretical-based art, post-conceptual art or critical art—any art that deals with social or cultural or gender issues—will be decidedly on the margin.”
Artists and intellectuals who have the option to leave will do so, he said, and added, “The exodus of creative people has already started. They’re going to Western Europe, mainly. For artists, it’s very difficult. If they do not find support from public institutions, I don’t think they can stay here.”
Perhaps the most devastating European cultural funding cuts have been in Portugal, where the debt-laden government in 2011 reduced federal operational grants by 30 percent and then simply dissolved its ministry of culture.
Luís Silva, founder and director of Kunsthalle Lissabon, a contemporary arts exhibition space in Lisbon, said that arts organizations could technically apply directly to the government for support, but in 2012 there was no call for applications. This year, arts groups were invited to apply for funding again, but the amount available hasn’t been publicized.
Small arts groups in Portugal may be faring better than the larger ones, said Silva. For example, he operates with an annual budget of about $53,000, and although a third of that government backing disappeared in 2012, he was able to make up for the loss by mounting shows devoted to foreign artists, who brought funding from their own countries. “That’s where it gets perverse, for local contemporary arts institutions like ours,” said Silva.
This is a real blow to Portugal’s art scene, which had been making some strides toward internationalization in recent years. “Prior to the crisis and the financial collapse, there were initiatives taken by the cultural community to develop structures and mechanisms to help the artists become part of a larger international network. Now all of that has gone down the drain,” said Silva. “You’re willing to sacrifice and compromise and commit to the community for a couple of years, but after a while you need to think about other things, like basic living standards. People in the visual arts are struggling just to live. We’ve always been at the tail of Europe, but now it’s becoming unbearable.”
Nina Siegal is an editor and writer based in Amsterdam.