The Length of an Arm

Poul Bache, Director General, Kulturstyrelsen - Danish Agency for Culture,
12 February 2013, Denmark

Next year our national arts funding organization, The Danish Arts Fund, will celebrate its 50th anniversary. The Fund was created in 1964 by the brand new ministry of culture as an independent body. Its remit was to support the arts and the artist in our country at an arms length from the ministry. The role of the minister should be ”to fund but not to control” as said by  Julius Bomholt, the first Danish minister of culture.

The new Arts Fund became controversial. It provoked a widespread popular protest  against the spending  of taxpayers’ money on what many perceived as  incomprehensible modern art. 

In the 1970s and 80s the state support of the arts was gradually expanded with new funding programmes and new funding bodies for specific art forms. In 2001 a number of these programs were merged under the umbrella of a new Arts Council, which was established independently of the Arts Fund.

As director general of the Danish Arts Agency it has been my job to make the two funding bodies to work smoothly and efficiently to the benefit of the arts and the society. The funding decisions must be recognized as competent and impartial, and based on the arms length principle: The independence from the minister and the parliament. But there exists no clear definition of this principle. The interface between the arts funding system and the political system has always been a zone for discussion and struggle.  How long should the arm be? Should funds for the arts be politically earmarked? Are members of the funding bodies to be appointed by the minister?  Are funding committees favoring colleagues and friends?  Such questions are frequently discussed in the media and in parliament. In 2011 we had a fierce public debate on the decisions of the funding committees for literature, and in 2012 the Arts Funds support to particular composer came under fire.

Two weeks ago our parliament had its fist reading of a new bill on the arts funding system. The bill is supported by all of the eight parties in parliament which means that the bill will be adopted unanimously later this spring.  The main purpose of the bill is to simplify the arts funding system by merging the Arts Council into The Arts Fund and from 2014 The Arts Fund will be the one and only national arts funding body. This will make it a little easier to understand how the arts funding system works.

More important is that having all our political parties in favour of the new legislation confirms the importance of the state support for the arts and the artists.  And also that the political parties confirm the arms length principle as the foundation of the funding system. It’s good for the arts and for our society.  But this does not mean that the Arts Fund will live in peace for ever. The debate will go on. The decisions of the Arts fund will be questioned.  And the length of the arm will always be under discussion. That’s good, too. The worst would be if our politicians lost their interest in the state of the arts and the workings of the funding system.