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Reaping the Rewards of Culture in Europe

Submitted by on 12 Jul 2012 – 11:27

EuropeBy Alice Angus and Giles Lane, Directors, Proboscis

European countries have long been at the forefront of valuing and supporting the arts and creative practices as vital components of their social and cultural fabric. The scale of governmental and European Union support, beyond that provided by private philanthropy and charitable foundations, has been crucial in achieving the richness that Europe enjoys today. The strength of the ‘non-commercial’ creative sectors across Europe is widely envied and its programmes for supporting people and practices emulated across the world. It is a key part of the crucial mix that keeps our societies vibrant, dynamic, transformative and inspirational.

But this support has often been at the minimal end of the scale, providing barely a subsistence level of finance. This perpetuates a delicate ecology where individuals and small organisations – who are the lifeblood of living cultural and creative practices – are prey to sudden changes in policy or economic conditions that can easily overwhelm them. Heritage and conservation organisations still tend to swallow up the bulk of resources available for culture.

The wave of ‘austerity’ sweeping across global economies hit by the long term impact of the banking crisis and subsequent recession poses significant threats to this fragile ecology – but why does this matter? As states across Europe scramble to get to grips with their budget deficits, resources for the arts and culture are being cut at rates that are often far deeper than for other sectors. These are not so much cases of scaling back investment as of exiting and triggering the disintegration of a precious part of the social fabric.

What are we in danger of losing? Europe has an enviable record of supporting projects, organisations and initiatives that enable risks to be taken and invest in experimentation. By withdrawing support for living cultural practices, experimentation and less definable forms of innovation in favour of ‘safer’ areas, the champions of collaborative and cross-form practices are left by the wayside along with all the innovation they stimulate. Europe is in danger of losing the ability to sustain innovative and experimental work at the intersection of arts, industry, research and communities. And in so doing, losing new opportunities to drive innovations across disciplines and industries; to see inventions through to transformative outcomes that generate new products and outcomes. Dr Lorraine Warren of the University of Southampton’s Business School describes the value of creative interdisciplinary projects between arts academia and industry as a “major source of innovative ideas that contribute to the development of new products and services…. They (creative industries and artists) are intensive users of technology and often demand and create adaptations and new developments of technology, providing stimulus to technology producers.”1

Much of this work is done by small organisations led by determined and visionary individuals. They are unique and vibrant precisely because of their diversity and difference, their small size and independence from the mainstream. Often the initiators of cross-disciplinary and collaborative ventures they are rarely the beneficiaries of the longer term impacts. What does Europe gain from supporting these kind of maverick organisations? Bronac Ferran (formerly Director of Collaborative Arts at Arts Council England) describes this kind of investment as “extremely important in providing space and time for pre-commercial activities which may then provide the essential basis for further developments that feed into non subsidised areas – and then back into the subsoil eventually to form the seeds of new concepts or desires for the next generation.”2

In the case of our own organisation, Proboscis, regular funding from Arts Council England allowed us to develop our programme ways we hadn’t had the resources to do before: engaging in long term developments of practice, such as research collaborations and social engagement, as well as enabling us to cashflow projects where funding was paid in arrears or where no funding was immediately available. It provided leverage to explore new partnerships and build relationships, nurturing opportunities outside of traditional art contexts. As a result, Proboscis was recognised by the UK Research Councils as an Independent Research Organisation, devised projects funded from such diverse sources as the UK Ministry of Justice, the Technology Strategy Board and Horizon Digital Economy Research Institute and created international partnerships that took us to work in Australia, Japan, Brazil and Canada. Proboscis was able to support seven young unemployed people into creative careers through the UK government’s Future Jobs Fund programme and to develop a collaborative method of practice with institutional partners (such as universities and industry) who are more used to commissioning subcontractors or consultants than working alongside independent creative practitioners as peers.

Providing a baseline of support for these kind of organisations gives them the resources to invest in the experiments that are crucial for developing new areas of cross disciplinary work and to create unique partnerships that simply would not be possible in a commercial environment, yet often lead to socially and economically important outcomes.

“… the creative industries have a distinctive character that challenges traditional models of research into business innovation and entrepreneurship. Unorthodox collaborations come together for the duration of a single project, then disband and form new partnerships for the next project. This diversity, fluidity, interconnectedness and potential range of novel new combinations for which there may be currently no precedent presents a challenge for researchers, educators and policymakers who want to not only know, but explain, and further, anticipate, what is going on, so that appropriate development and support mechanisms might be put in place.”3

In uncertain times like these innovation is needed more than ever. If austerity cuts away at the roots of experimentation and innovation then how much longer will it take Europe to restore its dynamism and confidence? What is the value of culture if it turns its back on those who are not driven purely by business goals, by financial ambition or a career path, but by artistic vision, passion, compassion and the desire to learn from others by working with them, sharing what they discover along the way?



1. Dr Lorraine Warren quoting C. and Truby, J. (2009) ‘The role of creative industries in industrial innovation’, Innovation Policy in the Creative Industries at a presentation for Realising the Value Spectrum: Creative Interdisciplinary Projects a workshop held at INESC, Porto 2010.

2. Bronac Ferran, Towards Ecologies of Learning; Enhancing Relations between Arts and Academia, London Centre for Arts and Cultural Change 2010

3. Lorraine Warren & Ted Fuller, Creative Methodologies for the Creative Industries, 2009


Alice Angus and Giles Lane are artists and directors of the non-profit social and cultural innovation studio, Proboscis, based in London.