In Europe, Where Art Is Life, Ax Falls on Public Financing
European governments are cutting their support for culture, and American arts lovers are starting to feel the results.
In Italy, the world-famous opera house La Scala faces a $9 million shortfall because of reductions in subsidies. In the Netherlands, government financing for arts programs has been cut by 25 percent. Portugal has abolished its Ministry of Culture.
Europe’s economic problems, and the austerity programs meant to address them, are forcing arts institutions there to curtail programs, tours and grants. As a result, some ensembles are scaling down their productions and trying to raise money from private donors, some in the United States, potentially putting them in competition with American arts organizations.
For Americans used to seeing the best and most adventuresome European culture on tour in this country, the belt-tightening is beginning to affect both the quantity and quality of arts exchanges. At least three European troupes that were expected to perform in January at the Under the Radar theater festival in New York, for example, had to withdraw as they could not afford the travel costs, and the organizers could not either.
“It is putting a pretty serious crimp in international exchanges, especially with smaller companies,” said Mark Russell, artistic director of Under the Radar. “It’s a very frustrating environment we’re in right now, tight in part because of our own crash, but more generally because it seems to me now that every time we get around to the international question, we have a meltdown and go back to zero.”
For artists and administrators in Europe, such changes are deeply disquieting, even revolutionary. In contrast to the United States, Europe has embraced a model that views culture not as a commodity, in which market forces determine which products survive, but as a common legacy to be nurtured and protected, including art forms that may lack mass appeal.
“Culture is a basic need,” said Andreas Stadler, director of the Austrian Cultural Forum in New York and president of the New York branch of the European Union National Institutes for Culture. “People should have the right to go to the opera.”
Over all, he added, “Culture is much higher on our political agenda than it is here, because it is so linked to our identities.”
Germany and France, the largest and most stable economies in Europe, are suffering the least and can even point to increases in financing for some officially favored programs, genres and ensembles that are seen as promoting the countries’ images abroad, like film.
But other countries with governments that are led by conservatives or technocrats — like Italy, Hungary, the Netherlands and Britain — have had their culture budgets slashed. So have others that are being forced to cut public spending to remain in the euro zone, including Greece, Portugal, Spain and Ireland.