15 Jun 2024

Debate: how should the arts be funded as Israel funding boycotts grow?


Barclays has become the latest big corporation to bow to pressure and cut ties with a string of UK music festivals. Artists had threatened to pull out due to the bank’s links to firms which supply weapons to Israel. This comes after the Scottish investment firm Baillie Gifford ended its support of various literary festivals, after protests over its links to Israel and holdings in fossil fuel companies.

But the decisions have left the arts sector scrabbling to find alternative funding. So how should the arts be funded? Is boycotting vital funding the answer, or is it self-defeating?

Musician Lyra, aka Rachel Lou, is part of the Bands Boycott Barclays campaign group and pulled out of a festival last month due to the bank’s sponsorship. Barclays has accused activists of weakening essential support for cultural events. She joins me now, along with Lord Ed Vaizey, culture minister under David Cameron.

Cathy Newman: Rachel Lou, just set out what you hope to achieve by boycotting festivals.

Rachel Lou: I think obviously the campaign and giving a bit of context about how I actually came to this position, I was invited to play The Great Escape. It was a festival in Brighton and about a month before I was made aware of the ties between Barclays and the Great Escape. From an artist’s perspective, seeing the suffering that’s happening in Gaza right now, the humanitarian crisis, we were really looking for some kind of way of being able to act. The feeling of helplessness was really strong and so for me it felt though I could not really continue to platform and put my music on a festival that was receiving funding from Barclays.

Cathy Newman: Ed Vaizey, you understand, I assume, the strength of feeling that people have, like Rachel, about Barclays, Baillie Gifford sponsoring these events?

Ed Vaizey: I’m not going to go down the line of talking about Gaza and Israel because that is a big, a huge, debate which arouses a lot of strong feelings. But the principle of corporates sponsoring the arts, and whether it’s right that artists, whether it’s productive for artists to kind of boycott festivals that are sponsored by corporations, I think it’s massively counterproductive. I think we live in a complex and globalised world. It’s going to be very hard if you take Barclays out of the picture, necessarily, to find a bank that’s not funding something connected with Israel if that happens to be your position. I think it’s massively counterproductive. Arts organisations work so hard to attract this sponsorship. You’ve now made that job ten times harder.

Cathy Newman: What’s your response to that?

Rachel Lou: The boycott movement was not a kind of protest against corporate sponsorship of festivals. It was a targeted movement against Barclays. And that is specifically because Barclays, it has financial ties with companies that are providing military services and supplies to Gaza. So this isn’t a question about whether or not as artists we want commercial sponsorships. This is a question of there are certain boundaries that we need to have and it’s part of a wider movement of thinking more ethically about the decisions we make.

Cathy Newman: Barclays says it can’t just debank people without legitimate reason. It’s providing services to clients and in its statement, it says the only thing that this small group of activists will achieve is to weaken essential support for cultural events enjoyed by millions. So it’s a bit of an own goal, isn’t it? The festivals that you rely on are now struggling?

Rachel Lou: Given how quickly this movement has taken off and really we have not yet even seen the potential of what it can achieve, I think that coming against, looking at a boycott, looking at the history of boycotts and the success of the boycott against Barclays in South Africa, there’s been a lot of evidence to show that, actually, even the pure reaction that they have in pulling out of these festivals shows that they are listening and what we want them to do is listen.

Cathy Newman: But where’s the money going to come from? Should it come from the state?

Ed Vaizey: As I said, I think it’s incredibly complex and Israel is a legitimate democratic nation. We have diplomatic relations with Israel. You’re not going to find another bank probably that doesn’t have some links with Israel. You’re not going to find a pensioner walking down the street whose pension is not probably invested, if you go down the line, in something connected with Israel.

Cathy Newman: So shouldn’t the government step in?

Ed Vaizey: No, the government should not step in. I think this is massively counterproductive. Barclays are not going to change their position. They’re simply not going to take a risk in sponsoring cultural events. They’ll probably sponsor sporting events which are much easier, which tend not to attract boycotts, because sports stars aren’t going to stop competing in sporting events.

Cathy Newman: But these events wouldn’t need this global sponsorship were it not for government funding cuts arguably. So should the state fund the arts better?

Ed Vaizey: No, because corporate sponsorship has been in the arts for time immemorial, as it were. The arts originally came from the private sector. Government has only funded the arts the last 60 or so years. It’s not a question of government cuts. Even in the time of plenty, arts organisations looked to corporate sponsorship to supplement their income.

Cathy Newman: Rachel, the government’s not necessarily the answer on this. Is it because, for example, the government granted, I think, 100 arms export licences to Israel since the Gaza war began. So that’s not clean money in your terms. Are you not looking for some kind of moral purity which doesn’t exist?

Rachel Lou: I think that at the end of the day we’re talking about choosing between options that are, yes, somewhat morally tainted. And I think the point is let’s look at this movement and let’s look at how it’s going to raise awareness of, it’s not just artistic care, it is people, the country care. It’s people who listen to music, care about this.

Ed Vaizey: But it’s an impossible circle to square. If you fly somewhere, are you going to say, well, I’m not going to fly anymore, because if I fly to Berlin Airport, maybe an El Al jet has been allowed to land at Berlin Airport. Therefore, Berlin has a connection to Israel.

Rachel Lou: And that’s fine. It’s targeted.

Ed Vaizey: The Barclays in South Africa thing was a completely separate issue where Barclays had a whole network of high street branches in South Africa. It had a huge part of its business in apartheid South Africa.

Cathy Newman: Ed Vaizey, there’s a lot of noise about the election. And, you’re a Conservative, a One Nation Conservative, a rare breed. The Tories seem pretty deflated. They’re letting Nigel Farage run riot. Do you need to be more aggressive and more open?

Ed Vaizey: Even a short election campaign, it’s less than three weeks now, there is still time to turn this around. Whether or not we can win an election is a different question, but I don’t think we should be in thrall to Nigel Farage. I do not think we should allow this narrative that somehow Nigel Farage is going to supplant the Conservative Party and take them over, take root. There are plenty of high-profile Conservatives who can take the fight to Reform and to the Labour Party.