The triennial art funding bunfight

It’s Arts Council Cuts time again, the new Tory-led programme to get the arts off public subsidy and onto private funding, and, in the process, create virtually out of nowhere a brand-new job opportunity for posh girls in the arts: development officer for struggling art spaces. The supplications — sorry, applications — from art venues are not due till March, but already the rumours are starting about who’s going to get cut (basically, anyone without a digital strategy) as people stare sadly into the prospect of a rapidly dwindling pie.

First up for spite is, of course, the Serpentine, which managed to get negative press about their financial arrangements even before the Christmas holiday. Well done, Serpentine! In December, news flew that the Serpentine co-directors, Julia Peyton-Jones and Hans Ulrich Obrist, the curator who can reasonably claim to out-network the internet, gave themselves whopping pay rises. The fact that they each make upwards of £140,000 and £120,000, respectively (when other director salaries hover around the £60K level) is not the only thing raising ire — it’s also the fact that the Serpentine, the most strategically located art space in history, receives around £900,000 in funding from the Arts Council, and that this figure is arrived at in a pretty unfair way.

summer party

From left: Julia Peyton-Jones, L’Wren Scott and Hans Ulrich Obrist all share a joke about the surfeit of names in their names at the Serpentine summer party.

Let us explain. The Arts Council has an apocryphal magic number, which is the amount of subsidy you are given, divided by the number of people who see what you produce. If that number is below a certain threshold, you’re doing well; if it’s very high, you’ll be put at risk. This serves to punish smaller galleries because they do not have the marketing budgets to get their shows seen by many people — and it’s a repeating cycle: they don’t get more money, therefore they don’t have the marketing budget, etc. (This is something the organisation Common Practice has been trying to call attention to.)

The Serpentine has long been seen as particularly egregious because they put their toilets after the marker after which one has ‘entered’ the gallery. Thus, allegedly, anyone using the Serpentine bathrooms — in the middle of Hyde Park, on a hot summer’s day — gets counted in the visitor figures, which are then used to calculate the amount of Arts Council subsidy. 

L'Wren and Sarah

We learn three things from this picture. One: L’Wren Scott is a giantess of immense proportions. Two: Sarah Jessica-Parker is a well-dressed dwarf. And three: the Serpentine, with its glitzy champagne-fuelled parties, is the perfect recipient of public funding dedicated to contemporary art.

This is particularly ironic because the Serpentine has among the best rates of private donations, particularly with its celebrity-fuelled summer party, in which such well-known arts figures as HRH Princess Beatrice and Kate Moss come to discuss the problems of third generation institutional critique in an increasingly neoliberal arts sector. The Serpentine, you see, is one of the few places that does not need the cash.

So stay tuned here for our #ArtsCouncilEnvyWatch, as the entire arts sector turns against itself in one big self-consuming heap of funding frenzy. Like the rats on that ship that’s supposedly (although not really) about to crash into Ireland.

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