French Cultural Policy: A Healthy Economy Is the Cause, Not Effect, of a Healthy Cultural Sector

from The Art Newspaper
January 2007
By Adrian Ellis

The mantra of ministries of culture today is that a vibrant cultural sector has a catalytic effect on the economy as a whole. Definitions of the cultural sector are contested, but usually include artists, musicians, designers and other creative types in the public, private and non-profit sectors together with those who make a living out of them or around them.

Richard Florida and others who mine this vein have argued, broadly, that a vibrant cultural sector:

  • Encourages relocation of high-added value “knowledge workers” who are attracted by creativity and culture; and that this then
  • Stimulates inward investment and the relocation of firms looking for a highly qualified, innovative work force; it also
  • Attracts cultural tourists (affluent seekers of entertainment, education and aesthetic stimulation who spend lots of money); and
  • Creates the basis for an attractive brand identity that in turn reinforces all of the above.

In a globalised world, cities and regions need to compete harder and harder to attract and retain increasingly mobile capital, labour and tourists. These arguments have therefore found an eager audience in politicians and civil servants seeking to gain or retain some competitive advantage for their city/region/country. But the question it raises is what, in turn, are the roots of a vibrant cultural sector – or, to switch metaphots, what is the corner-stone of the creative economy?

Last month, as reported in The Art Newspaper (p7), Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, the French Minister of Culture, gave his stab at an answer in a series of measures designed explicitly to boost the vitality of the contemporary visual arts scene in France. The package comprised a mix of funding for grands and petits projets together with some supporting fiscal measures. The direct investment includes filling the physical and emotional hole left when François Pinault decided to house his contemporary collection at the Palazo Grassi in Venice rather than at the Ile Seguin in Paris, and a pool of funding earmarked for acquisitions of contemporary work by the state art agency FNAC. The fiscal measures were designed to encourage collectors to purchase work by living French artists (i.e. to stimulate demand) and to encourage artists to reside in France (i.e. to stimulate supply). The estimated cost of the various measures some €100m ($131m).

By most standards of vitality – quantitative or qualitative, academic or saloon-bar – the contemporary art scene in Paris is in poor shape. It has fallen behind New York, London, Miami, Berlin, Shanghai and any other global city with which it might reasonably aspire to be benchmarked. Choose your index and Paris will barely register on it: the commercial gallery scene, the buzz bround its art fairs, the prices that contemporary French artists command in international markets, the level of activity in the domestic art market, or the curatorial energy in the museum scene.

So will these measures galvanise the sector, whether for art’s sake or for the economy’s? In my view, this is highly unlikely. Cultural vitality is inextricably intertwined with social and economic vitality. France’s (literally) stagnant and highly protected economy, together with its centralised bureaucracy has left the cultural sector deprived of the oxygen necessary for a vibrant existence.

The country has lost ground in the visual arts not because its economy has suffered but for the same reason its economy has suffered. It values highly ways of doing things that are antithetical to their success. France craves a broader cultural strategy that addresses the creative economy (public and private), the liberalisation of the art market, the development of individual and corporate philanthropy that allows a degree of pluralism to inform curatorial strategies, and a move towards more international competitive art and design education. But this requires in turn a broader perspective that fits uncomfortably with the interventionist instincts of the administration as a whole and the Ministry of Culture in particular.

Meanwhile, if one gives low marks to Paris for cultural vibrancy, who would get high marks and why? London is on a self-congratulatory roll, but I would venture that when we are able to gain some perspective, neither the cultural industries strategy of the Labour Government nor even the lottery windfall are major factors I compared with four elements:

  • The availability of cheap real estate so artists can live and work in the city (watch out—it is an increasing problem);
  • The quality and scale of the fine arts education sector (still a major competitive advantage);
  • An “arms-length” approach to arts funding, so that priorities are not tied too closely to instrumental goals (again, under threat);
  • An active market. Tinkering with fiscal incentives is nothing compared with an efficient market and the presence of high net worth individuals – art is a luxury commodity and a form of consumption and artists tend to follow the money (London still scores).

It would be an interesting exercise to move from saloon-bar to academe, and to benchmark a range of other cities more rigorously against these criteria. It would, I believe, tell you a lot about the underpinning of creative cities. But Paris would still be down and out.

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