[spectre] theoretical models of - the media art center of 21C

Simon Biggs simon at littlepig.org.uk
Mon Sep 12 13:01:18 CEST 2005

Just picking up on a two points here, as the issues are broad ranging and
perhaps best addressed independently.

On 12.09.05 06:46, Rene Beekman wrote:

>  in the real world of course, such
> a place does not exist, so why not take our little theoretical
> experiment a step further and see if we can come up with a model where
> we will not have to live on public funding or even sponsorship?
> would such a model be possible?
> what would it look like?
Attempts have been made to either initiate or convert institutions that
would make at least the larger part of their income from non-charitable
sources whilst ensuring those institutions remained non-profit charitable
organisations (important, from a tax point of view).

One well known example in the UK, which might be a useful example here, was
the formation of the Lux out of London Electronic Arts and the London Film
Co-Op. I know a little of this as I was on the board of LEA from 1987 to
1991 (Chair for a couple of those years) at a time when the foundations for
that evolution were laid and forward strategies agreed with the primary
funders (the Arts Council and British Film Institute, respectively). I also
know that some key people involved in LEA/LFMC/Lux/ACE/BFI at the time are
also on this list and will have access to knowledge that I do not...so I
recognise I might be opening a can of worms with this one ;)

As some on this list will know, this was an ill-fated marriage where nearly
everyone lost out. A number of errors were made, but the single primary
error was the insistence of the funders, under direct government ideological
pressure, that the new institution would not be allowed to own any major
assets. Most significantly, it would not be allowed to own its own premises.

Prior to the formation of the LUX, and the construction of a new purpose
built  building to house it, LEA had already gone through radical change as
it shifted (due to funder pressure, but also due to its own recognition of
where the econmic and political logic of the age was taking us) from an
economic model which saw 75% of income deriving from grants to one where 75%
of income was generated from business (largely equipment and studio rentals,
training and education, artists video sales to TV and video rentals to the
education sector, with a small income from direct video sales). To achieve
this a radical change in the organisation was required so as to ensure the
human resources were in place to move from a non-business oriented
cooperative model to a heirarchic structure (required to ensure
accountability through the organisation and beyond) focused on income
generation and the development of new economic models. This process of
change, as is often the case, was painful and some individuals were directly
negatively effected by the changes. It was not a pleasant time, but it could
be argued that LEA would have ceased to exist within 12 to 24 months if
those changes had not been made.

The main point here is that in the period 1990-1995, prior to the formation
of Lux, LEA did pretty well. It managed to expand from two rooms and five
employees in Soho to a large warehouse space and a dozen employees in
Camden. When it made the shift, with the Co-Op, to Lux the number of
employees was approaching thirty and the organisation was housed in three
floors of a five storey purpose built site (with cinema and galleries).

The logic that the organisation would not be allowed to own that building,
even though the main proportion of funds involved in its construction (some
5 million Pounds) came from its funders (a sort of dowry, if you like) was
driven by the concept of Public-Private Partnership, a largely ideologically
driven economic model that argues that public infrastructure should be paid
for in part (usually around 10-20%) with private investment (this concept is
now being applied to UK schools, which many consider a scandalous
eventuality). The trade off is that the private investor gets to own the
primary assets of the organisation (in the case of Lux, the building - in
the case of UK schools, the buildings and the curriculum). When the special
low rental arrangements between the Lux and the private partner ceased,
after the agreed period, and rents increased to market rates Lux was
crippled by debt and rapidly sank into receivership and loss of nearly all
assets (except some legacy technology and its film, video and media archive)
as well as its home. My feeling is that Lux could have survived, and indeed
flourished financially, with limited or minimal government funding, if it
had owned its own building. It would have raised income from rental of some
of the space (in one of London's trendiest and most expensive areas) which
it never benefited from and also been able to control its outgoings in
respect of maintaining its foundation.

I would argue that the above model could work, even today, as the
intermediate stage in the process (1990-95) did see the organisation doing
very well. With the added value of asset ownership Lux would have been
secure and even could have enhanced its earnings capability. It is a basic
Capitalist tenet that to succeed you need to own your primary assets and
means of production. So long as we live and work within Capitalist societies
we need to remember this. Any sort of institution, including media arts
centres for the 21st century, either have to take this on board or accept
that a revolution is required. Whilst I would happily join everyone on the
barricades the day that revolution arrives until then, if we are to
realistically engage with the question that Rene asks, we need to ensure
that whatever economic model is employed is sustainable in relation to the
dominant economic logic of the day, no matter how distasteful it might be.
The only other option is to take our toys and go play elsewhere, rendering
the requirement of such institutions theoretical at best.

> there is a few things here that i would like to separate.
> first of all academic publications; like a lot of open-source
> programming, academic research, at least the vast majority of it,
> actually __produces something that is recognized by non-peers/general
> audience as valuable. they might not understand it fully, but at least
> they recognize there is a sufficiently high likelihood of it being of
> enough value and that they too at some point will benefit from that
> value to validate funding.
> i don't dare say the same thing about the vast majority of government
> funded art that is produced. somehow we seem to have failed miserably
> at making non-peers/general audience feel that way about our art.
> it is no secret that we score extremely low on the "general public
> appreciation" scale - in fact so low that it is at the very least
> extremely hard to justify a model similar to the one you describe for
> research publications in the uk.
It is likely that what you say is the case in respect of how art continues
to be funded through traditional channels such as Arts Councils. However,
major changes have taken place, at least in the UK, over the past decade
that I think force us to question your view. The creative arts, in their
many forms, have been centre stage in much of the urban renewal that has
been going on in UK cities, such as Newcastle, Manchester, Sheffield,
Glasgow and many others. Enormous investment has been made, across the
economic spectrum, in cultural infrastructure and in the resources that
ensure continued content production. The Baltic, Tate Modern, Tate Liverpool
and Glasgow's cultural precinct are only the most obvious examples of this
investment. This seems to suggest a society that places a lot of value on
the arts, and recognises their central role in the economic and cultural
health of a society.

> scientists have realized that as producers of a good, they have a power
> to leverage. so instead of thinking that they are depending on
> publication in scientific journals, they have more or less turned the
> tables by making the product of their work - the research papers - in
> raw format available for free to anyone. on the one hand does this give
> them leverage to justify their government funding (transparency of
> public spending and free availability of the resulting products ), at
> the same time will it force the journals into a more valuable position;
> namely that of peer-review publisher and keeper-of-high-standarts.
> what goods do artists produce that could be leveraged in a similar way?

Alongside government infrastructural investment in the arts within the UK we
have seen creative arts practice accepted as serious research. I do not mean
research into or about creative practice, but the idea that creative
practice is itself a viable and valuable form of research which merits
recognition and support. This latter development is recent (only since 1997,
with the foundation of a research council for this area of work) but it is
now a fundamental part of the research infrastructure of the country and has
changed profoundly how much resource there is for creative practice and
where it comes from and how it is delivered. The situation now is that
creative practice is valued for similar reasons as science, engineering or
the humanities and is established alongside these more traditional areas of
inquiry. Thus I would suggest that we have not "failed miserably" to
convince others of the value of art but just the opposite - a fundamental
argument that had been going on for generations (at least in the UK) has
been resolved in art's favour.

It is important to remember that whilst a lot of research that is funded is
related to likely outcomes (eg: applied reseacrch) it is also the case that
much research money is going to less specific "pure", fundamental or
blue-sky research. There has long been a split in research between applied
and fundamental research, as there is also between these and scholarly
research. To those three basic research forms you can now add the emergent
research form of practice-based. This is an exciting time for people
involved in this area as the sort of things many of the people on this list
are involved in come to be recognised as valid in their own right to a
society that recognises that the likely outcomes will be of value at some
point in the future.

So, I would agree with you that historically the creative arts have been
something of a Cinderella at the party but argue that in recent times, in
certain places, this has begun to change. Of course with this comes a whole
new set of problems, but they are another matter.



Simon Biggs
simon at littlepig.org.uk

Professor, Art and Design Research Centre
Sheffield Hallam University, UK

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