Some years ago when the President’s Day Competitions were just starting out I sat in a meeting with a variety of artists from various fields to discuss some policy on the arts that seems to have ended up in the “arts policy dustbin”.
What I remember, though, from that meeting was a woman saying that the President’s Day Competitions would not grow the arts in any way. She said that it was just the paying out of money to people, nothing more. She felt the government was going down the wrong track.
At the time I disagreed with her. In every field within the arts, money is an issue. An artist, be the person a painter, a writer, a singer or a poet, either has to hustle incessantly or they must have a day job. The constant fight to survive is the biggest barrier to producing good art. I knew from my personal experience as a writer that money for an artist means time, time to devote to your art, and that can only be a good thing. It’s what would allow our artists to up their game, to gain in professionalism, to educate themselves, and to have sustainable success inside and outside our borders. At the time I believed in the President’s Day Competitions and I was hopeful that it was the beginning of everything. I think now I was wrong.
I think it’s time to step back and take a serious look at the objectives of these competitions, the amount of money that is spent, and the outcome. Is it worth it? Have past winners shown growth in their field? Are the judging criteria correct so as to choose the artists with real potential or are the criteria based on alternative objectives?
I ask these questions because I wonder after all of these years: where are these artists? What you find is that they appear for the competitions and then seem to disappear until the next year’s competitions. Have they made any headway in making their art a more sustainable project?
Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s very important to have nation-wide competitions in the arts so that we know where we are and to reward excellence. But I wonder if the time and energy spent on these competitions is worth it. Has the arts industry in the country shown growth or improvement as a result of the competitions over these last ten or so years?
I think artists should be asking these hard questions. I think it’s time for assessment.
There was talk once of setting up an Arts Council, I’m not sure where that idea disappeared to, but I think it needs to be resurrected. An Arts Council with a board made of practicing, accomplished artists from each sector, with that so important distance from government, I believe is a much better way to manage the minimal money the government has for the arts.
I realise that the President’s Day Competitions make the government appear as if they have a stake in the arts, but if you’re pouring money into a project that results in no real improvement except to prepare the artist to win the next year’s competition, it is nothing more than another scheme that grows dependency instead of independence, and independence is what the arts need to be vibrant and sustainable.
For the next few columns I want to take a look at some arts councils around the world and how we might pick and choose from their successes and avoid their failures.