In Vienna these days the the largest, most prestigious and best funded theatre - the Burgtheater - has hit tough times. In December news broke that the theatre's long-serving General Manager had been fired after auditors had exposed financial irregularities. There is no suggestion that the manager had acted to enrich herself. Instead, her actions simply reflect the fact that accounting tricks have become necessary to balance the books while continuing to deliver the customary number of productions, maintaining fair pricing and delivering high artistic standards. The problem has been brewing for a while as public funding has been frozen for several years, resulting in cuts in real terms. Sound familiar?
In the USA a number of professional orchestras have also filed for bankruptcy in recent years. During a visit to London last month arts activity also seemed to be below pre-crisis levels. After thirty percent cuts to the arts budget that is probably inevitable. Is all this just a sign of belt-tightening during the worst financial crisis in eighty years? Or is it a sign of a general fracturing in the relationship between the public funding masters and the subsidized arts? Perhaps the great post-WWII flowering of state-funded arts activity is drawing to a slow end.
If so, the first victim will be (is) artistic experimentation, diversity and innovation. Arts companies faced with financial cuts routinely react with a "retreat to the ramparts". The tried and tested repertoire mainstays take up ever more of the programs, new work is curtailed, reduced or cut altogether. Ultimately the arts then become less meaningful, less vibrant and less artistic! Perhaps most worryingly, I sometimes get the feeling that would suit many governments just fine.