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Can arts patronage help reshape our post-COVID culture?

Since late 2017, arts patronage has become one of the core pillars of Sputnik’s work, and raison d’etre. There are certainly some things we’ve learned in the last 2-3 years, but if anything, we’ve only become more convinced of the need for this role, and the opportunity for the church to do more.

Right now, considering the damage facing the creative industries in lockdown and its aftermath, we’ve temporarily shifted our approach – to simply offer emergency funds to out-of-work artists. But at some point we’ll be returning to funding artistic projects, and as we consider the future, it’s time to raise the bugle again (sadly still in the office) and talk about the need for change in the arts at large. 

So, why is arts patronage needed in this moment?

The arts are (part of) the lifeblood of society

I’ve written before that ‘culture’ can be thought of as the fruit of human community. When humans join together in clans, tribes, cities: culture happens. Culture isn’t exclusively art, but the arts are a pretty big part of it. 

Under lockdown, I believe we felt pretty quickly our need for culture, for shared experiences and that connecting lifeblood. It wasn’t just that we missed our friends; we missed the contexts in which we usually see our friends: pubs, cafés, gigs, theatres, football grounds. Streaming services, and the usual online chat around films and shows, patched some of the gap. More interesting were the bursts of community activity: musicians playing for their neighbours, online table readings for the fun of it, tennis games from tower block windows, zines and arts initiatives springing up to capture the moment.

No doubt our threshold for boredom is embarrassingly low compared to previous generations, but even so: can you imagine lockdown without art? And yet our government continually stumbled in understanding the threat, and the needs, of the creative industries. It’s hard to shake the feeling that it was the continual reminder of the industries’ financial heft (£111.7bn in 2018), rather than the real value of culture, that moved the government’s hand. I couldn’t help but face-palm as our Culture Secretary seemed to conflate ‘the arts’ with ‘classical music in the park’.

Arts and capitalism doesn’t really make sense

I’m glad the arts make a financial difference, but no-one should have to explain that stimulating the economy isn’t where art’s value lies. What about the arts programs lifting up disempowered youth? What about the spoken word nights where sparks fly and confidence is found? What about – gasp – the amateur arts organisers who bring community to disparate daydreamers?

Anyway, how do you measure the value of a song? Not so long ago, I could pay 79p to download a song that changed my life: and 79p for a waste of three minutes. Now that I pay a subscription charge to listen to any songs I like, it only gets muddier, and the only thing that seems remotely clear is that no-one is getting paid anywhere near enough for their work.

Capitalists are not blind to the fact that artists are still going to create the precious ‘content’ pretty much whether they’re paid or not.

The funny thing is that many (not all!) artists seem to have a desire to give away their work for free. Perhaps it’s knowing that the artistic process is not finished until the art is received by an audience; perhaps it’s a sense that to be ‘gifted’ is not something you possess, but rather an imperative, something you need to get out of your hands for it to fulfil its purpose as a ‘gift’. Unfortunately this internal desire is frequently exploited: capitalists are not blind to the fact that artists are still going to create the precious ‘content’ pretty much whether they’re paid or not. But it does build the sense that art and capitalism are odd bedfellows at best.

There seems a low-level hum around the fact that most Britons don’t want post-lockdown life to return to ‘normal’ as it was. (Colour me surprised). There also seems to be a new energy – out of necessity, I suppose – for local, grassroots initiatives in pretty much every sphere of public life. Depending where you live, these might involve local councils; equally likely is that they’ll spring up as a form of collectively-run projects, a more active form of citizenship.

Out of the tragedy of the last few months, the painful loss and all the rest, there is a window for re-thinking things that have seemed bleakly unchangeable for too long. But we need imagination, and we need risky generosity. Can we create better, less capitalist ways to get art made?

We need to play our part in culture

Makoto Fujimura, in his eye-opening book Culture Care (now a podcast!), compares our culture to a local ecosystem, like a river: in a polluted culture, heavy with the demands of commodification and mass-consumption, artists are pushed to make shallow and un-nourishing work, just to survive. Everyone suffers from the loss of a rich common life. 

Caring for our mutual culture, he asserts, is a societal good. We do it in the way that we clean parks, or we clothe the homeless; not as a thinly-veiled excuse to share the gospel, but as a thing that is good in itself, a way to bless others and create the environment for faith and spirituality to grow.

There is a counter-cultural current growing: a desire for a common life not merely precipitated on cruel markets. I believe it’s a current worth encouraging. Ideas like arts patronage are a part of this: a way to allow artists to make work that enriches culture, not just what sells. It is, of course, an old idea – most of the art that has endured through history was supported by patrons – and in a sense, its ethos already exists in a hundred arts organisations who make constant sacrifices for the arts. Sputnik alone can’t support the arts sector! But we want to go further. 

There is a counter-cultural current growing: a desire for a common life not merely precipitated on cruel markets.

It’s a difficult time for many, not just artists, so it’s an odd time to talk about fundraising: but let’s not talk as if this is ‘charity’. This isn’t about ‘starving artists’ needing a leg-up. This is about an apocalyptic moment that could allow us to rout the profiteers, the moneylenders if you like, from the spiritual heart of our common life.

We’ll be talking more about our particular Patrons scheme in the coming months as we relaunch things, but we want to hear from you, too. What can we be thinking about? What should we try?

And, of course – you can currently sign up as a Patron yourself from as little as £5 a month!