The classification of state support for the arts

How governments are supporting culture during the coronavirus crisis. 

by Fabio Cavallucci and Elena Rossi

Which governments have shown themselves most ready to support culture and contemporary art during the pandemic? It’s not easy to say, also because in this matter propaganda is often added to reality and announcements are not always followed up with actions. In this article we have tried to draw up an (incomplete) classification.

With the news of the 50 billion euros which appeared in all the main newspapers in the world, the German government would immediately have gained top position as supporters of culture. But the real situation was actually rather different, because it was later discovered that the 50 billions applied to all activities, not only strictly cultural ones. But leaving aside these first inflated announcements, thanks to the billion for the Neustart Kultur programme, the 540 millions for the maintenance and reinforcement of cultural infrastructures, the 250 millions in support of a new start for culture, and the 6-fold increase in the annual budget for artwork purchases, in any case Germany comes top. The serious intentions of the German Government have been borne out by its political leaders who have openly committed themselves to the cause of culture. Besides the declarations of the Minister Monika Gutters,  Chancellor Angela Merkel’s surprisingly detailed, deep speech regarding the fundamental importance of artists for society has also had a strong impact ( But regional and municipal governments have been no less active, starting with the town of Berlin. At the very beginning of the appearance of the virus in March this place of attraction for artists and creative professionals from all over the world had conferred a cheque for 5000 euros on each of them (as long as they were enrolled in the national insurance scheme).

President of the United States Donald Trump

With however a considerable gap, second place goes surprisingly to the United States, with 1200 dollars (about 1000 euros) immediately assigned as “helicopter money” to each artist, curator or creative professional, and an overall package of 300 million dollars (255,000,000 euros) for the arts. The fact is surprising because we know that this country is by no means one of the first to distribute public funds to museums and art centres, which traditionally base their incomes on private donations. But here the memory of Roosevelt’s New Deal must have played an important role, when after the 1929 Wall Street Crisis and the Great Depression funding for the arts was included in important state subsidies to the economy, making possible the great public art (at that time mostly murals) and photography campaigns of American society.

Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Boris Johnson

The United Kingdom too, where instead State support of the arts is a tradition, a principle, and there is free admission to museums, at least on paper, the Arts Council offered a large amount, 160 million pounds (about 178,000,000 euros) to theatres, galleries, museums and artists. Of these, 20 million pounds (23 million euros) have gone to freelance artists and professionals, 90 million (100 million euros) to organisations supported by national funding such as the Whitechapel Gallery of London and the Tate Galleries, and 50 million (55 million euros) to cultural societies which do not regularly receive funds from the Arts Council. Then in July the British government  launched a further economic support programme worth 1.57 billion pounds (1 billion 700 million euros), mainly for structural works. All this money wins the head of Downing Street a well-deserved third place in the classification just after his exit from the European Union (at not exactly a good time). To crown all this, significant private funds have been offered in support of culture, such as the 500,000 pounds of the BBC and the 1 million pounds of Netflix followed (regardless of the amount) by the Society of Authors and Amazon, however with specific reference to publishing.

Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau

“At this moment we need the arts more than ever. When we reflect on this crisis, Canada must feel proud of how united we are as a nation. Canada is the global leader in human rights and tolerance; we need artists to continue expressing and exploring this part of our identity and plurality in order to help the Country to unite and heal”. These are the opening words of the letter sent to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Canadian members of parliament by One Voice for Arts + Culture (OVAC), a network of Canadian cultural organisations and institutions, museums and art galleries set up last March with the aim of supporting the cultural sector of the country, proposing ideas to the government and asking it questions. In the very first days of the pandemic the Canadian Council of Ministers announced it would give 60 million dollars (38 million euros) in “advance funding”. To date a rescue fund of 500 millions (317 million euros) has been set aside for culture, art and sport. The slogan is the doubling of the funds invested by the Federal Government in the arts and culture, to a cry of “culture and the creative industries generate jobs and contribute to strengthening the economy”. And the first steps seem to confirm that direction, if it is true that contributions to the Canada Council for the Arts have increased by 100%, passing from 180 to 360 million dollars (228 million euros).

Prime Minister of Norway Erna Solberg

The northern countries never disappoint, and Norway is no exception. It has been one of the first countries to recognise the strategic importance of culture, art and creativity in an advanced society. We’re talking about approximately 1.8 billion coronas (170 million euros) placed at the disposal of the Ministry of Culture in a special aid package for the creative sector. Specifically, besides the grants for supporting writers and artists economically. 650 million coronas (61 million euros) have gone to support the cultural institutions of the country, such as the publicly-funded museums and the art institutions. The national museum has been granted a special budget of 30 million coronas (3 million euros) to support Norwegian creativity, to be used for new purchases. The whole budget will in fact be used during 2020 to purchase works of art directly from galleries and other centres of artistic production, objects created by Norwegian artists and connected to the applied arts and design.

Prime Minister of Australia Scott Morrison

Significant interventions have also been made in other continents. In Australia, a country where cultural activity contributes 6.4% to the annual GDP, this year a little help has nonetheless been necessary, even if this has not satisfied the expectations of workers in the sector. Instead of the 2.2 million dollars (1 million euros) proposed by the public petitions of Live Performance Australia and the Australia Institute,  where they also asked the Prime Minister to make a public acknowledgement of the value of the culture industry, at the beginning of April the federal government announced a package of 27 million (16 million euros) of specific funding for the arts, 7 million (4 million euros) for the support programme for the native visual arts industry and 210 million (6 million euros) for Regional Arts Australia. Although the package does not cover all the needs arising from the crisis, local administrations have shown their willingness to add a considerable contribution to the cause: in April, the government of the State of Victoria established a package of 16.8 million dollars (10 million euros) for the arts, and the town of Sydney announced a million dollars (610 thousand euros) for artists.

President of the Council of Ministers of the Italian Republic Giuseppe Conte

It’s time now to examine the situation in Italy which, being the first country in Europe to be struck by Covid-19, also implemented  pioneering cultural support measures during lockdown. On 17th March, with the Decreto Cura Italia (Decree for Healing Italy), the state laid the bases for what every other country was later to imitate, conjugating and diversifying them as they saw fit in the following months. With this decree it introduced various measures: suspension of social security and welfare payments; a temporary redundancy scheme; reimbursements via vouchers also for tickets for shows and museums. So far it is calculated that an overall funding of 245 million euros has been decreed to support companies and workers in the world of the arts and the performing arts during lockdown. With the limit however of being concentrated mainly on the world of performing arts, while very little has been done for art museums, even less for contemporary art museums (which in Italy usually belong to the local administrations), and nothing at all for artists. “The people who amuse us, the people who arouse our enthusiasm” was how the Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte defined the latter in one of his rare references to the culture sector, demonstrating a mistaken concept of culture based solely on entertainment and showing how neglected contemporary art is in Italy. A serious situation which numerous professional organisations, particularly the Italian contemporary art foru are trying to fight against.
However just a few days ago we learned that the Minister of Culture Dario Franceschini has signed a decree to allocate 50 million euros to the support of museums, visual arts and non-state places of culture. The resources come from the emergency fund for cultural enterprises set up with the 19th March “Relaunch” decree. Moreover, 103 million are being shared out among the 11 new Cantieri della Cultura Italiana (Italian Culture Worksites) in the month of August. These include the State Archive in Rome, the Contemporary Art Museum of Rimini, the Arsenale of Venice, the Isozaki Loggia of the Uffizi and the Museum of the Italian Language in Florence. Finally, 3 billion euros have recently been allocated to tourism and culture in the “Decreto Agosto” (“August Decree”), which besides the funds also grants a considerable series of deferrals, exemptions and subsidies for state museums, cultural institutions and MIBACT (Ministry of Cultural and Artistic Heritage and Tourism) foundations.

Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern

Nor should the efforts of New Zealand be underestimated. Creative New Zealand has announced “an emergency  package“ of 16 million NZD (98 million euros) for the first half of 2020, revealing the probability of a second instalment of funds for the second half. At the end of May, the Prime Minister Jacinda Arden, the youngest female head of state in the world, announced two further groups of funding. The first includes a series of economic packages for specific cultural institutions, and the second a programme of 175 million NZD (98 million euros) to support the art and music sectors.

President of the French Republic Emmanuel Macron

France seems to have adopted a very similar line to Italy regarding state subsidies. Twenty-two million euros will in fact be divided out among the various cultural sectors: 10 million for music, 5 for performing arts, 5 for publishing and only 2 for visual arts. Not actually a very large amount. In fact, Macron later also announced a special support fund of 7 billion euros to reimburse cancelled shows, partly in the form of loans and partly as non-repayable grants, but with no further help for the art sector, which has been left fairly unprotected. Louvre, d’Orsay, Pompidou, Orangerie and all the other large and small French museums will most likely not be wholly satisfied with the value attributed to them in a country where the visual arts are one of the main tourist attractions.

President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin

One of the state subsidies promoted by Putin and the Russian government has been a programme of loans to businesses for supporting employment and exemption for many of them from paying all taxes and social security contributions. These measures are reckoned to cost federal finances over 800 billion rubles (9 billion euros), corresponding to 0.5% of the GDP and bringing overall anti-crisis expenditure to 3.3% of the GDP. However, many experts think that the government’s anti-crisis measures are inadequate for easing an economy which was already stagnant before the pandemic. Consequently, the mechanisms for issuing funds which might function in the United States, Europe and the United Kingdom are less efficient in Russia, which reduces government capacity. The 12 million rubles (138 million euros) contemplated for the national project “Support for small and medium businesses” will be used for the additional capitalisation of the regionally-developed cultural institutions.  The overall sum of the presidential subsidies is 4.6 billion rubles (53 million euros), divided up among 4419 different projects proposed by the cultural section.

President of the People’s Republic of China Xi Jinping

And what about China, the country where Covid-19 began? It is not easy to decode the complex mesh of Chinese government interventions, which are often incompletely communicated when it is a question of institutional spending. A request for support by artists and galleries last February seems not to have had any effect, but the Chinese government has in any case set aside funds at least for covering museum and theatre rents and the cancellation of exhibitions and shows. Depending on the dimensions of the institutions, there have been one-off assignments of 6000, 12000 or 24000 euros for a total of 360 million euros, given of course in RMB. It seems a considerable figure. But all things considered, what are 360 million euros for a country with a population of a billion and a half people?

Prime Minister of Madagascar Christian Ntsay

Finally, some countries have given out subsidies in kind. The Guardian reports that in Madagascar, one of the poorest countries in the world, the Minister of Culture has resorted to distributing sacks of rice to help artists damaged by the crisis, apparently earning the country bottom position in the classification of support measures. But in the end, who knows? Who can say that this gesture so close to basic needs should not be seen as the most valuable one, the first in order of importance? If we reposition art and its creators at the centre of life’s fundamental functions and relationships, the gesture seems to highlight the perception that their role is a necessary one, a perception which has alas been lost in countries which are able to solve problems with abstract bestowals of money.

Sharing is caring!

Enroll in our newsletter

Art speaks all languages, it always has something to say. Also by email.