Culture in Crisis

a-n Magazine
December 2011 / January 2012

Republished in Arts Professional
16 January 2012, Issue 247

You can’t eat the rice cake in a picture.
Japanese proverb [1]

Health is a sine qua non; culture is a raison d’etre.
A friend to Chris Smith on his appointment to Secretary of State for Culture in 1997, having immediately before that been the Shadow Secretary for Health [2]

The title of this debate is purposefully a bit misleading. I am interested in what culture can do in times of wider societal crisis, rather than about culture itself as being in a state of crisis. As recent events in the UK have shown, however, the two are necessarily linked. Culture is thrown into crisis, predominantly through the threat of reduced funding streams, the second the drawstrings of the public purse are pulled tight. But some cultural practitioners are also too quick to spell disaster for the sector and the potentially misleading title is intended to press the question: what is the real crisis?

Over the last ten months as the first Artist Fellow on the Clore Leadership Programme, I have been thinking about how artists can really make a difference in the societies they find themselves in. This is not about ‘making the case’ for the arts under the harsh interrogation of media cynicism during a time of cuts but rather a proactive investigation of what art can do affirmatively, especially in situations of need. Here, I want to examine cultural value in the specific context of the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 2011.

In his excellent report, Capturing Cultural Value (2004), John Holden argues for a rethinking of the way in which we understand and quantify cultural value, that is different from the binary argument of ‘instrumental’ (art delivering social and economic goals) versus ‘intrinsic’ value (art for beauty, truth, delight):

The arguments seem to have got stuck in the old intellectual tramlines very quickly: instrumental vs. intrinsic value, floppy bow ties vs. hard-headed ‘realists’, excellence vs. access. Worse still, the instrumental/ intrinsic debate has tended to polarise on class lines: aesthetic values for the middle classes, instrumental outcomes for the poor and disadvantaged. [3]

Holden goes on to offer an alternative that draws on a range of categories of cultural value. These include: anthropology (recognition of non-economic value; historical, social, symbolic, aesthetic and spiritual values), environmentalism (duty of care, intergenerational equity), intangibles accounting (definition of things that are difficult to value, consistent terminology), and public value (organisations committed to their own purpose, recognition by the public, administrative and operational values). Holden then sets out a series of key indicators of ways ‘values’ could be defined, implemented and recorded. Key to the process is the idea that institutions must be ready to self-define the ‘public goods’ that they want to generate as opposed to internalising policy directives from outside.

Step one in recognising and producing value is for institutions to articulate the higher order public goods that they are pursuing and to place their goals within that framework. [4]

In other words, it is the ultimate aim of what you are seeking to achieve that you should define first, which is to say the human effect in real terms, rather than the methods or second order goals that you might negotiate on the way. [5]

I have been thinking about what happens to these ‘higher order public goods’ in times of extreme national crisis. It seems to me that by examining what culture can do when the fabric of society is itself at risk, that we might learn something about the operation of culture more generally. In this regard, I was very interested to learn about the response of cultural institutions to the crisis in Japan earlier this year, when earthquake, tsunami and nuclear catastrophe created a national disaster.

The undersea megathrust earthquake with a magnitude of 9.0 occurred on Friday 11 March 2011, its epicentre approximately 72 kilometres east of the Oshika Peninsula of Tohoku, Japan, lasting approximately six minutes. The earthquake, the largest recorded in Japanese history, triggered devastating tsunami waves of up to 40.5m high in Miyagi and Iwate Prefectures, travelling as far as 10km inland. The tsunami also caused a number of nuclear accidents, particularly the ‘level 7’ meltdowns at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant.

The National Police Agency of Japan report 15,578 confirmed deaths, 5,070 missing and 5,694 injured. 109,660 properties were completely destroyed, with many more damaged.6 Whole villages and towns have simply been washed away. The World Bank estimates the financial cost of the disaster could be in excess of US$235 billion, making it the most expensive natural catastrophe on record. [6]

Faced with such an enormous scale of destruction it seems extremely difficult, maybe even inappropriate, to try and untangle whether cultural value has any meaning at all. I want to examine the response of some of the artist-led and artist-focused spaces in Japan, to see what ‘cultural value’ might mean for a society in crisis.

There are a series of artist-focused spaces in Japan that host domestic and international artists in residence, offer public programmes of workshops and exhibitions, and that act as centres for the exchange of ideas and practices.

Once the scale of the damage from the events of 11 March became apparent, almost all of them released public statements. A common thread across these statements is a sense of helplessness and frustration to meet the level of need in the Tohoku region.

The power of art was disappointingly so ineffective in the shadow of such a huge natural disaster. However, I have strong belief in art and its role in reviving society and creating a new future.
Tatsuhiko Murata, Co-Director Youkobo Art Space, Tokyo

At such a time as this, we are forced to question what is the relevance and meaning of art in the face of such suffering, but we can only come to the stronger conclusion of art’s high significance.
Emma Ota, 3331 Arts Chiyoda

What art can do may be limited at this early stage in the recovery process, but we do believe that art is capable of lighting a small flame of hope.
Yusaku Imamura, Director Tokyo Wonder Site [8]

In practical terms many organisations curtailed their published programme of activities and instead gave over their space and resources to money-making activities to support the work of the Japanese Red Cross and other humanitarian and relief agencies.

The Kiyosumi Gallery Complex, one of the most influential commercial galleries in Tokyo held a silent auction which raised JP¥ 38,564,467 (UK£ 303,154), which they gave to Japan Platform. [9]

Students of Tokyo University set up Artists’ Action for Japan, a series of exhibition sales of emerging artists work. Artists’ Action for Japan has been as much about making young artists feel they can make some contribution as it has been about raising money, which at the time of writing has reached JP¥ 4,286,517 (UK£ 33,696). [10]

Other organisations found alternative ways to support the crisis. ARCUS in Moriya, Ibaraki gave over their studio spaces to families who were made homeless by the evacuation of the area surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant. [11] Indeed the use of cultural spaces across Japan as temporary housing for displaced people, has been commonplace.

There are numerous moving examples of people taking action to raise funds and support the relief effort but out of all the cases I have come across there are very few that are really using art, or investing in art itself, as something that has a meaningful role to play at the right time. There is one clear exception: Japan Art Donation.

Set up by Kenji Kubota, an independent Tokyo based curator, very quickly after the events of 11 March, Japan Art Donation calls for gifts of money that will be ring-fenced for cultural activities. The website identifies the rationale:

The search for missing people and the material supplies for refugees are currently being intensively done in the stricken areas. On the other hand, the mental care for the people who have suffered is going to be a crucial subject in the future. We believe that art will have an important role to play then, in healing people and revitalizing their lives. Japan Art Donation will use your relief donations for the revival of cultural institutions, the dispatching of artists, the conducting of workshops for the children who suffered, the opening of theatre plays, dances, and performances in the stricken areas. [12]

It is this unabashed belief in the necessity of art itself as a vital instrument in the rebuilding of the devastated areas of Tohoku that marks out Japan Art Donation in comparison with the other culturally led relief efforts.

Japan Art Donation is not a legal entity, it does not have a board of directors (although it does have an informal advisory group), it is simply a website and a bank account. Artists and curators were approached to write messages of support. Over 100 messages are archived on the website. In May 2011 I met with Kenji Kubota to learn more about the initiative.

“I am a freelance curator and I don’t belong to any organisation, I thought maybe I can move quicker than organisations. I was thinking, what can I do as a freelance curator? I found out that many donation sites had begun already but at that time there were no donations to limit the use for art or culture.” [13]

Kubota is quick to acknowledge that the first thing to do in such a natural disaster is to save as many lives as possible and then to secure water, food, shelter and clothing for the affected. But he also recognises that with the huge economic pressure on local and national budgets, culture will be the first thing to be cut.

“The local government has to spend a lot of money to recover the damage. So I thought okay, the budget for culture must be cut. I think it is important to have art activity but at the same time I have been working for museums in Japan and outside Japan and I know that the first thing they do is to cut the budget for culture. And of course the huge [amount] of money that people donated to the Red Cross will not go to culture. So what I think is that maybe it is not important right now but Japan Art Donation will be needed by local artists and local museums eventually.”

Kubota’s fast response (Japan Art Donation was founded on 15 March, four days after the earthquake struck) was needed to maximise interest while the international media had its attention focussed on Japan. He was aware that the window for donations would peak and subside very quickly. But his commitment to supporting cultural activities is much longer.

“I think the recovery of the area will take a long time: 5 years or 10 years. So ideally we would want to be active for 5 years or 10 years.”

By mid-May Japan Art Donation had received over JP¥ 6,000,000 (UK£47,308). In one sense this is a great achievement but it is also a very limited financial resource. Kubota remains open minded about what specific activities the money should be spent on but he is clear that all the money should be spent in the Tohoku region itself and that those from other regions who want to help, should self-fund. So at the same time as attracting a financial basis, Japan Art Donation has begun to form a network of those in the cultural sector who want to use their expertise and creativity for the for the benefit of the affected areas.

Although Kubota is a curator of contemporary art, he acknowledges that one of the most important things is to try to be conscious of the fact that it is the traditional cultural practices that are most at risk of disappearing as a result of the tsunami.

“There are so many villages that are totally washed [away] by the tsunami. All of those villages and small towns have their own traditions and their own culture: local festivals. In this country, especially in the provincial areas, it is very important for local people to keep the traditions, to have a festival, for example, once a year. […]

It may seem hard to connect contemporary art to those traditional things. But […] the artist can use their imagination and creativity to propose something to local people. Maybe it’s impossible to do the regular traditional events but maybe a contemporary artist can propose something different but connected. That’s one possibility.”

The preservation of traditional cultural practices through the versatile possibilities of contemporary art is just one of the tasks that Kubota sees culture playing in the rebuild.

“Also, using creativity and imagination, I think artists can propose how to recreate the community or [consider] how to recreate the plan of the town, the cityscape, or the functions of the town.”

Kubota sees artists as the repositories of creative solutions and of having the power to encourage community cohesion. He also acknowledges that culture has a vital role to play in the public rehabilitation of Fukushima, a city and prefecture forever associated with nuclear meltdown.

I was interested to know if Kenji Kubota saw a conflict between the social imperative of the work of Japan Art Donation and its artistic value. Could he imagine the work ever being evaluated or interpreted as ‘art’ or was it always going to be measured in terms of its social effect? In other words, does the extremity of the social need in Japan during this time of crisis mean that the old binary of instrumental versus intrinsic value will once again come into force, with art having to deliver social and economic goals?

“I am not an artist. I am a curator. I think my role is always to connect artistic experiments or artistic expression to the society. That’s my role as a curator, whether it is in the museum or outside the museum. And when I do exhibitions, I’m always curious as to whether the show is artistically important and at the same time I always think, will this exhibition affect the public? [.] Personally, that’s my main interest in doing work as a curator. So Japan Art Donation is something like making an exhibition. [.] But it’s very difficult because the activity of Japan Art Donation is not like an art project, it is a social project but it is done by artists and curators.”

Kubota recognises both the instrumental and intrinsic value of culture. His ‘higher order public goods’ are to heal the people of Tohoku and to revitalise their lives, to make them human again. Artists have something particular to offer. In the case of the devastation in Japan that offer is produced by a social need.

What is so inspiring to me about Japan Art Donation is that it is the idea of one man who believes in the necessity and power of art and wants to support the people of his country in time of crisis by backing culture. Japan Art Donation seems to be saying that access to culture and freedom of cultural expression are fundamental rights and key to the positive fulfilment of a life. After food, then comes art.

[1] David Galef, “Even monkeys fall from the trees” and other Japanese Proverbs (Rutland, Vermont: Tuttle, 1988) §41

[2] In ‘Valuing Culture’, Speech by Rt Hon Chris Smith archived online at: [accessed 17.07.11]

[3] John Holden, Capturing Cultural Value: How culture has become a tool of government policy (London: Demos, 2004) p.25

[4] Ibid. p.51

[5] Holden gives the example of ‘regeneration’ as an often cited goal that is not in itself part of the goal of public goods. “…strategic plans may refer to ‘regeneration’ or ‘social inclusion’ as goals. What is needed is to place ‘regeneration’ within higher order concepts, so that everyone understands why ‘regeneration’ is a goal. ‘Regeneration’ is not an end in itself but one route to the creation of public goods.

If regeneration works it will create prosperity, but it will not have worked fully unless it also produces healthier people and healthier communities.” Ibid.

[6] ‘Damage Situation and Police Countermeasures associated with 2011 Tohoku district – off the Pacific Ocean Earthquake’ [accessed 17 July 2011]

[7] Victoria Kim (21 March 2011). ‘Japan damage could reach $235 billion, World Bank estimates’, Los Angeles Times,0,3799976.story [accessed 17 July 2011]

[8] These statements were published on the relevant organisations websites and collated in the ResArtis Newsletter of 2 May 2011,,,

[9] ‘Silent Auction in Kiyosumi’, [accessed 18 July 2011]

[10] See for ongoing updated figure of sums raised

[11] For more information on ARCUS response, see

[12] [accessed 18th July 2011]

[13] All quotations from Kenji Kubota were recorded in personal interview with the author on 22 May 2011 in Komazawa-Daigaku, Tokyo and are reproduced here with kind permission.