This page introduces columns about art and culture from various viewpoints by Arts Council Board members, professionals in the field, etc.


A Fresh Look at the Value of Grants

Board member of Arts Council Tokyo / Managing Director of the Saison Foundation
Masao Katayama

I get the impression that, for some reason, grants are no longer considered to be of value in Japan’s cultural policy. Looking at the subject in purely financial terms, for example, in the case of the main Agency for Cultural Affairs grants and subsidies for which ordinary nongovernmental organizations can apply, the budget for the Plan to Boost Creativity and Promote the Performing Arts is 3.7 billion yen, that for the Project to Promote Regional Revitalization and International Appeal via Culture and the Arts is 2.6 billion yen, and that for the Project to Revitalize Theaters and Concert Halls is 3.0 billion yen. Even if one includes the 1.1 billion yen budget for the Japan Arts Council, this barely exceeds 10 billion yen. And even if one then adds on the money spent on initiatives with a narrower focus, such as projects aimed at children, and the money paid to non-governmental organizations to undertake outsourced projects, the sum still does not account for a large proportion of the 103 billion yen total budget of the Agency for Cultural Affairs (all sums are estimates).
Tokyo Metropolitan Government has a budget of 17.0 billion yen for cultural promotion (FY2014), but although this sum is on the rise at the moment, in the run-up to the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, it is only relatively recently (FY2013) that the total value of grants awarded through the program now known as the Arts Council Tokyo Grant Program passed the 100 million yen mark.
This tendency is not confined to government bodies. Even in Japan, where corporate support of the arts has flourished to such an extent, hardly any companies – apart from a few exceptions such as Shiseido – run grant programs focused on arts and culture (although some companies have established foundations that do offer grants).

Approaches to support for culture involving government expenditure basically come down to an either/or choice between the government body in question running cultural facilities and projects itself or subsidizing another party to undertake cultural activities. The decision on which approach to choose should be made on the basis of which is the more effective and efficient way to achieve the policy objective. To put it plainly, if there is someone who can do it better than you, give them a grant to do it; if not, do it yourself.
Of course, in reality, a variety of dimensions need to be taken into account in this decision. One presumably ought to consider compatibility with projects arising from the difference in nature between the public and private sectors, as well as the situation at that specific time, such as the degree of maturity of private sector arts activities. In any case, the way in which these two options are used for specific purposes is a key issue that should be considered when allocating resources.

So amid this situation, why is support for culture in Japan tending more toward the non-grant approach? Given the increasingly straitened condition of Japanese government finances, it would be reasonable to have a few more policies to support efforts to strengthen private sector arts and culture initiatives and organizations. But despite this, for some reason, there have been hardly any grants to non-governmental organizations with this kind of clear intention.
The issue at the root of this is probably the nature of our society as it has been shaped over the decades since Japan began to modernize in the mid-19th century; that is to say, a society in which not simply culture and the arts, but all social services of public benefit are provided by the state or local governments, and where the private sector was never envisaged as a potential supplier (even assuming such suppliers did exist in the private sector). People’s understanding of grants has not gone beyond perceptions of them as “government handouts” given as a token bit of charity when a person/group is struggling or as a small “pacifier” given in response to lobbying. When you get right down to it, this all stems from the structure of our society.

At the same time, what tends to happen on the ground is that front-line staff have a greater sense of fulfillment and enjoyment if they plan and execute projects themselves than if they simply “subsidize” other people’s activities. They regard the sense of achievement to be derived from autonomous projects as being greater. The other side of the coin is that they are not able to perceive the depth and creativity from their job.

Grants are actually a means of securing advanced expertise to make strategic changes to a situation. Cultural facilities require the investment of vast sums and, once built, impose constraints on what can be done there. But grants are different. The barriers to reflecting new ideas in programs are low and programs can continually be modified in a flexible manner to make them more effective. Plus, it is easy to try programs and withdraw from those that did not work. Above all, if programs do go well, they make it possible to cultivate a large number of people and groups with limited money.
The reason why grants have ceased to be valued (both in monetary terms and in terms of enthusiasm) is that policy-makers and practitioners alike have failed to adequately recognize the true value of grants described above, and have failed to drill down in earnest to explore their potential. Given the parlous state of public finances and increasing expectations regarding the role to be played by the private sector in society, now is precisely the time when we should be taking a fresh look at the value of grants.