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Europeans Weigh Cultural Subsidies In Light of Economy

In Europe, as in the United States, budget deficits are forcing a rethinking of government's role in funding culture.

Europeans, however, begin these debates with a strong presumption that art is the government's concern. While Americans trace their great museums and symphony orchestras to gifts from individual philanthropists, many of Europe's cultural icons were created under court or church patronage.

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But many old assumptions are being questioned. In the Netherlands, for example, the government provided subsidies to artists to produce a certain number of works a year, which then filled government warehouses.

``Those policies were a sign of times that will never return,'' says Ursiea Lambrechts, a member of parliament with the centrist Democrats 66 party. ``It's no longer possible in [Dutch] society to make such a special arrangement for a specific group of people. Ten years ago, the government didn't even require that artists produce good art. Now we're moving toward a system of temporary stipends, but only for excellent artists.''

In France, artistic success is still the government's responsibility. The choice is clear, French Culture Minister Jacques Toubon said last week, urging Europe's culture ministers to invest in and protect their nations' audiovisual industries. ``In the 1960s, Italy had the finest film industry in Europe, ahead of the French. Since then, France has financed a very active cultural policy and Italy has not. Now France has a film industry, and Italy does not.''

When the European Union proposed doubling its audiovisual support to $500 million over the next five years, French officials noted that that sum represents only one-third of what France spends for the support of its film industry every year. France has one of the largest cultural budgets in Europe, spending $2.5 billion a year.

In Britain, Germany, and Belgium, American films now account for at least 80 percent of box-office receipts. In Eastern Europe, where state cultural subsidies were slashed after communism's fall, the collapse of national audiovisual production has been more dramatic.

``Europe has defended its automobile and aeronautic industries,'' Mr. Toubon says. ``Why does it now hesitate to do the same for culture? The question is: `Do you want Europe to exist in this domain?' And I could have said, `Do you want Europe to exist?' ''

But there is little agreement within Europe about how to achieve the goal of a greater world presence for European culture. The northern European democracies tend to support market solutions; France, with some support from Spain and Italy, is pushing for a stronger public role in support of culture.

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This month's Berlin film festival sounded echoes of this controversy. Berlin Mayor Eberhard Diepgen opened the festival with a critique of French calls for cultural quotas and subsidies. To save the European film industry, Europeans need to make good films, he told the audience.

``The consumer will make his own decisions,'' says German Foreign Affairs Ministry delegate Helmut Schafer. ``We need to strengthen distribution of [quality] films.''

The Arts Council of England had its 186 million ($294 million) budget cut by 3.2 million ($5.1 million) this year. Several theater companies have closed, and more are combining operations. But the biggest impact has been on the quality of productions.

``Any one of the German states gets more subsidies than government provides in all of England,'' council spokeswoman Sue Rose says. ``There has been a struggle to keep afloat, but the biggest threat has been to artistic standards. Theaters are doing smaller productions, involving less work.''

But British culture budgets are set to soar next year. ``With the national lottery coming on-line, we expect 150 million ($240 million) for the arts. That will make a big difference.''

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