Sawaragi Noi: Notes on Art and Current Events 2

On the ‘budget screening’ of the cultural administration

The ‘budget screening’ of allocations in the fiscal 2010 budget carried out by the Government Revitalization Unit is being talked about a lot. As indicated by the revival of the so-called supercomputer project and other projects that had been facing the ‘chop’, it now appears the screening carried out by this unit is not the end of the review process. On the other hand, it does seem inevitable that the direction indicated here will turn into a powerful current sweeping along the various administrations. Of course, the cultural administration is no exception.

Is art a matter of ‘self-responsibility’?

With respect to areas directly relating to the arts, the most significant development would have to be the budget screening relating to the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology carried out on November 11. The target on this occasion was Cultural Relations (2): International Exchange of Artists, etc. (International Exchange of Artists, Children’s Traditional Culture Classes Program, Promotion of Cultural Activities at Schools, Program for the Creation of Communication Education Centers). In Japan, where subsidy programs for artists are sorely lacking compared to Europe and North America, the Agency for Cultural Affairs’ Overseas Study Program for [Up-and-Coming] Artists in particular has provided one of only a few opportunities for artists who have felt the limitations of working in Japan and thought about studying or becoming an artist-in-residence overseas. The total cost of such programs may be incomparable to the cost of building dams or developing airports, but for young artists the impact of this particular budget screening is anything but small.

As it has already been published on the Ministry’s website and elsewhere, many of you will already be aware that the conclusion of the working group’s assessment boiled down to a ‘reduction in budget requests’. The comments posted together with this assessment were as follows:

•Results need to be assessed concretely. •Results need to be followed up and verified. Deficiencies in the system. •Selection of 150 or more up-and-coming artists for overseas training each year is too many. •Numbers need to be reduced until improvements are made in methods for assessing results. •Accountability with respect to the investment of taxpayers’ money is insufficient, including lack of follow-up (verification). A reduction is unavoidable. •The Ministry carries grave responsibility for failing completely to assess the results of the investment of taxpayers’ money to date. •For a start, there need to be regular follow-ups and verification of results. •Art is a matter of self-responsibility. If there are refined cultural levels or artistic qualities unique to Japan that have currency, then it should be possible to develop and present them with properly thought-out marketing. •Personnel development is unnecessary. Promising artists go to study overseas using additional prize money from contests, etc. With regard to exchange programs, there is overlapping with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, so the contribution from the country as a whole should be reduced. •Mechanisms for following up on those who have taken part in programs and for assessing results need to be created and implemented. The programs themselves are important. Travel costs also need to be reviewed. •What do we need to set as goals, including yields? An actual framework needs to be put in place before anything else. It’s because the goals cannot be measured that results cannot be assessed. However, actual support for artists needs to be firmly implemented.

Although it is difficult to generalize because the assistance from this overseas study program is not targeted at art alone, the common view expressed in these comments would appear to be something along the lines of, ‘The criteria for assessing overseas study are murky and there is absolutely no ex post facto assessment. Support itself is fine, but the way things stand at present, a reduction is inevitable.’ To be honest, my feeling is that hardly anyone could make a persuasive argument for rejecting such a view completely as unreasonable. As someone involved in the arts, in light of the fragility of the actual portion of the national budget allocated to the cultural administration in Japan, this reduction will be hard to bear. However, putting to one side my personal motifs, I would have to say the way things stand at present, the conclusions reached by the unit are on the whole reasonable.

Murky aspects of the overseas study program

How did it come to this? Within the International Association of Art Critics of which I am a member, for example, the way the overseas study program offered by the Agency of Cultural Affairs is administered is that when there is an artist who wants a recommendation from a member of the association, the executive office is responsible for receiving the documentation, which it forwards to the Agency of Cultural Affairs along with the documentation from other applicants by the closing date. Because I am also a member, every year several artists come to me requesting recommendations. When I think an artist is likely to gain opportunities and produce results by spending time overseas, I accept the request and complete the appropriate paperwork. Of course, while some are accepted, others are not. That is only natural, but considering the record and achievements of the artists concerned, on more than a few occasions I have felt the definition of an ‘up-and-coming artist’ and the criteria for deciding whether to accept or decline an application are perhaps too vague. I hear about cases where the same artist continues to receive assistance for five, three, and one years. On the other hand, despite repeated applications, some artists are never accepted even though they can demonstrate a certain level of achievement. But then it seems there are artists with no apparent record of note who get through easily. Although it was quite a while ago, I remember expressing concerns at a general meeting of the International Association of Art Critics that there may be murky aspects to this overseas study program (for example, that members were recommending candidates, which is fine, but that these members were at the same time serving on the committee at the Agency for Cultural Affairs responsible for making the final selections), but because details of the membership of committees at the Agency for Cultural Affairs were not made public (at the time), the discussion did not go any further. I wonder what the situation is now.

In addition, it is true that the activities and assessments of artists following their return to Japan are far from transparent. They are far from transparent even to someone like me who is involved in the art world, so for someone on the outside it must be even worse. Certainly, it is only natural that there are difficulties in determining what represents ‘results’ when it comes to art. But this is no reason for supporting the program as it currently exists. No doubt it is the administration’s role to strain their wits over this, and in any case, if things continue without any clarification with respect to ex post facto evaluation, just as was the case with pork-barrel politicians, before long those in positions of power (committee members, critics) will become invisible vested interests, and on the receiving end, while the label ‘up-and-coming artist’ may sound fine, in essence it may reach the point where art is used as a pretext for investing taxpayers’ money to extend the moratorium on aspiring artists. If such a situation were to arise, it would likely turn into a hotbed of petty authority and dependence. There is no way truly ‘up-and-coming’ artists could ever emerge out of such a situation.

Unlike the Government Revitalization Unit, I have no intention of forsaking art as a matter of ‘self-responsibility’, nor do I feel inclined to go as far as adopting the pragmatic ‘art is a venture’ attitude of Murakami Takashi. So long as the assistance given to artists is sourced from taxes, it is only natural that we need schemes that satisfy everyone to some degree. However, that is not all. For example, even if this review is passed and the budget is reduced, if this serves as an opportunity to reform the program itself in a positive way, I am convinced that in the near future it will provide even greater opportunities for assistance for ‘up-and-coming artists’ who have the ability to produce clear ‘results’.

The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology
The Government Revitalization Unit

Part 1 Where is the contemporary in Ohtake Shinro?

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