On the day I left for my gap year trip with Art History Abroad, I felt terrified. I cried while I sat in the terminal, waiting to board my flight. I was on my way to Italy, and for the first time in my life, I was on my own.
I had been accepted to UC Berkeley for the spring semester, rather than the fall, when my sister and all my friends would be starting. Gap years are common in Europe, but not many American students take one. I was worried. What would I be missing? Would I feel left behind?
As soon as I arrived in Italy, however, I knew that my time there would give me just as much as a semester of college, if not more. My gap year course was my first chance to see the world as an adult. It would teach me to make friends with people from across the world, to take care of myself, and to discover new passions. Every day felt like an adventure, as we ate, laughed, and learned our way through a dozen Italian cities, and I felt more independent and excited than I ever did in high school. I learned how to take risks: to get lost in the alleys of Venice, to dance in a nightclub, to sit in front of a monument or a sculpture and try to sketch it, despite the belief that I had absolutely no artistic ability.
I think it’s exciting that more American students are now taking gap years. College has been challenging and exhilarating, but I know that my experience with AHA is the reason I’m getting so much out of it. On the trip, I began to discover a new, independent identity—an identity I continue to explore in college. When I started at Berkeley, I already knew how to take care of myself and how to challenge myself with new experiences. My Italian journey is the reason I’ve been able to make so many friends in college, and it’s the reason I’m studying Urban Design. I’ve found the perfect niche in a place I never expected to feel so comfortable. I’ll remember my trip as not only one of the most exciting experiences of my life, but as one that helped me learn who I am and what I can do.
For more thoughts on taking a Gap Year and its benefits, see this article by founder of the AGA (American Gap Association) Ethan Knight.
Culture Secretary Maria Miller argued in April 2013 that the arts had to make a case for their economic worth to receive government funding. Speaking at the British Museum, she said British culture should be viewed as a ‘commodity’ and ‘compelling product’ to sell at home and export abroad.
Investment in art, she went on, is only a means to ‘healthy dividends’. When British art is exported, it should be part of ‘relationship marketing’ to help ‘attract investment which will drive jobs and opportunities here at home’.
But at the heart of Miller’s speech was contradiction.
The arts can only grow and benefit Britain’s economy with significant government funding. Asking them to increase profit whilst reducing funding is paradoxical. The most successful theatrical exports of recent years – War Horse, One Man Two Guvnors (seven-times Tony-nominated and currently touring Hong Kong, New Zealand and Australia), and Matilda – came from the subsidised sector. Sir Nicholas Hytner, head of the National Theatre, said ‘she seems to be acknowledging that the arts are an engine for growth, but growth is what we are desperately in need of.’
Besides, Britain’s culture is already fantastic value for money. London theatre alone returns almost as much to the treasury in VAT as Arts Council England gives to theatre across the country. If we consistently reduce funding we may see a repeat of the 1980s, when persistent reduction in funding closed roughly a quarter of the country’s theatres. This would be an astronomical loss. Arts funding amounts only to 7p in every £100 of public spending, yet the creative industries, according to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), account for 6.2% (GVA) of goods and services in the economy, £16.6 billion in exports and 2 million jobs.
Despite this, Chancellor George Osborne announced a 7% spending cut to the DCMS as part of the Spending Review in June 2013. It was probably the best case scenario in a worst case economy. But Richard Mantle, general director of Opera North, pointed out that ‘it’s a 5% cut on top of a period of quite severe cuts…since 2011, so it’s the cumulative effect which is the challenging thing.’
That challenge is particularly felt outside the South East. We cannot hold up all British arts to of London theatres, in terms of revenue. This risks an increased split between the South East and rest of the country in terms of arts funding, and thus artistic creation – denying millions the opportunity to enjoy and generate culture. Keith Merrin, director of Woodhorn Museum in Northumberland, is facing a struggle as a result of a 10% cut to local authority budgets. ‘The belief that philanthropy will pick up the slack is simply unrealistic in most parts of the country,’ he lamented.
Making art a commodity most detrimentally risks reducing interest in new culture. It is not just profit that makes art valuable – it is the fresh and exciting risk it takes; the challenges it throws at society’s mores. Creative risk-taking produces excellence and modernity, but artistic figures cannot do this if they are programmed to focus on profits. A desperate need for funding will lead to overreliance on big names to generate the required investment. A cycle of reliance on celebrity artists will ensue – making the art market elitist, and denying opportunities to younger artists.
Above all, art is about more than money. Labelling it with an economic value is harmful. Art is generates a sense of community and identity, and offers a platform for opinions and public discussion. Miller’s speech seemed to sideline all other benefits the arts bring. The fact that art is about more, and that access to it is mostly free, is what makes it so culturally valuable. It is first and foremost a social commodity. Former Arts Council England chair Dame Liz Forgan summed it up well:
“The danger…is that people actually start to believe that because art produces huge economic benefits, we should start directing our investment in culture for its commercial potential. That’s not only philistine, it’s self-defeating, because then you get accountants making artistic decisions, which is as silly as having artists making accounting ones. If you start to invest in art because of an identified commercial outcome, you will get worse art and therefore we will get a worse commercial outcome.”
Culture undoubtedly has economic value. UNESCO has identified the UK as the world’s largest exporter of cultural goods – bigger than the US, Japan, Germany or France – and 40% of tourists to the UK cite culture and heritage as the primary reason for their visit. But this should be a pleasant, unintended (but not unforeseen) consequence of funding the arts. Making financial gain the ends of artistic creation will destroy and commercialise the means.
Miller admitted that ‘culture educates, entertains and it enriches. We must never lose sight of that fact.’ But in times of economic crisis, with harsh cuts being made everywhere, that is exactly what we risk. The British Museum is a pertinent example: the UK’s most popular tourist attraction, part of its appeal is that entry is free of charge – it is accessible to all. As I described with opera earlier this year, art and culture is unifying. If we give it an economic label, we risk splitting its audience by income and depriving future generations of artistic opportunities.
With thanks to Wikipedia, the BBC and the Independent for photos.