Just asking

Okay, I’ll get to the fate of arts funding in the US federal budget in a minute. But first, let us pay proper regard to the parade of arts administrators falling all over themselves to preemptively pass the buck. First up: NEA head Rocco Landesman, who’s been making all sorts of noise lately about how there are too many institutions and too many arts jobs, &c. Example:

“There are 5.7 million arts workers in this country and two million artists…. Do we need three administrators for every artist?”

I am somewhat surprised that Landesman has not been lambasted for the sheer disingenuousness of that statement, considering he in all likelihood pulled the 5.7 million figure from Amercians for the Arts and the 2 million figure from his own agency without bother to consider that a) the NEA’s 2 million artists are included in AFTA’s 5.7 million workers, and b) that 5.7 million is a tally of total full-time equivalent jobs, not just administrators. But, anyway: then there was Michael Kaiser, dodging blame: “The arts are in trouble because there is simply not enough excellent art being created.” (Don’t sell yourself short, Michael—you stuff your foot that far down your throat, it starts to look vaguely Philip-Guston-esque.) And then there was this blog post by New England Conservatory president Tony Woodcock that the Internet kept trying to direct my attention to the other day. On the surface, it’s your standard classical-music-needs-to-reinvent-itself hand-wringing, full of concern over Relevance and Legitimacy and Its Place In Culture (i.e., in the thrall of irrelevant network effects). But this article was interesting: I scratched that surface, and was kind of amazed how little there was actually there, as it were. I mean, anybody who tries to take both sides in the Detroit Symphony strike is not really putting their foot down very hard. I took it as a sign that our public discourse on the arts may have finally reached the point where all sides have abandoned specificity for rhetorical wheel-spinning. Woodcock’s peroration:

We need to reassert the power of music and the power of musicians to be extraordinary in their music making and in their ability to re-invent themselves for all our futures.

It sounds good, I’ll give him that.

And give those administrators credit for sensing the shift in the wind: in terms of arts funding, the White House’s new budget proposal starts the negotiation at a 13% decrease in funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, from $168 million in FY2011 to $146 million in 2012. Keep in mind that the opposition started their negotiation at zero, and it’s looking pretty grim. Here’s the real fun: scroll to page 439 of this bit of high-performance eye-glazing, and you can see that the long-term assumption is a steady erosion of federal arts funding—that estimated $163 million in 2021 is, in real dollars (based on standard CPI inflation estimates), not even as much as the reduced proposal for 2012. If you think that this is a planned devolution and that states will pick up the slack, I will answer you as soon as I catch my breath from laughing.

But, as cynically satisfying as regarding the collapse of civilization can be, it’s still, again, rhetorical wheel-spinning. So here’s my line in the sand: I want to see that proposed $146 million tripled in a decade. I want a commitment to annual 11.5% increases—and, Race-to-the-Top style, I want state access to those increases tied to the ensured health of state arts agencies. And by 2021, the NEA budget should be $438 million. You want to spur private-sector activity? According to this research (which I’ve cited before), such an increase could potentially boost private donations to arts organizations by somewhere between $40 and $340 million annually. You want to create jobs? Compare this analysis and the AFTA analysis: the alternative energy industry—which the proposed budget supports to the tune of some $8 billion in research grants and breaks—generates 1.67 jobs per $100,000 spent, while the arts generates 2.94 jobs per $100,000 spent. You want some political cover? Tripling its budget would merely be returning NEA funding levels, in real terms, to their high-water mark under the Reagan administration (1984, which wasn’t even the high-water mark for NEA funding overall).

Truth be told, I didn’t do a lot of research and then come up with a tripled NEA budget as a result. I pulled that tripling out of thin air, and then went looking for justification. And, truth be told, it wasn’t hard to find it. Does this indicate, perhaps, that I am less than serious about deficit reduction and/or economic growth? Well, as far as I can tell, that puts me in good company. Nobody in government, for all their shouting and posturing, seems really serious about it, either. Nobody seems serious about actually raising taxes or shoring up entitlements. Nobody, for instance, seems serious about scaling back military spending to 1990s levels, even though that’s killing jobs in the long run. It’s just political point-scoring—rhetorical wheel-spinning. Might as well spin that wheel towards the arts. At least they do some good.


  1. This is spot-on in every regard. One thing to note, though: government advocacy is not driven by artists blogging about policy. (Less so by artists commenting on other artists' blogs about policy.) It's driven by lobbyists who are paid to tell politicians that they will get votes and contributions (not in that order) if they support the lobbying organization's preferences.

    So, with that in mind, instead of pushing for infinite extensions on copyright, perhaps ASCAP, BMI, etc. could focus their lobbying efforts on increasing federal outlays for the arts? Perhaps APAP can do the same? AMC? CMA? I'm sure they already do this, in nominal fashion, but I have yet to hear about any major campaign that uses the arguments that Matt puts forward here — an affirmative argument, rather than a defensive one, and on a broad scale. If Ian Moss or Kate Levin aren't standing in front of a Senate Hearing by 2012, those are the organizations that dropped the ball. (Kidding, but not.)

  2. People made art before there was public arts funding. People will continue to make art without it. And anyone who calls themself an artist – but only if they're getting paid! – isn't. They're a craftsperson. A worker for hire.

    Draw a line in the sand. Fine. Okay, there it is. Oh, boy.

    Now what? What are you gonna do?

    We – “The Arts” – have become an industry of beggars. Frankly, that kind of disgusts me and I don't want to be a part of it. I have too much pride.

    I'm not against arts funding en toto, mind you. I think there are valid uses – education, PBS, etc. And I'm willing to make concessions for works that are truly public, made available to the public free of charge. They paid for it.

    I'm not in favor of funding a(nother) production of Die Zauberflote that will only be seen by an elite group that can afford tickets and happen to live in NYC. Or even a brand new opera that will be seen by an equally small number of people.

    I'm willing to meet the idea halfway. If every piece of art that was publically funded, in whole or part, was made available free of charge – if that opera was streamed live on the web, if recordings of every new work funded were available for download – I could get with it. I'm still not totally convinced it's money well spent, but I could get with it.

    But why is the public turning on arts funding in general? It's not just Republicans anymore.

    Here's my (a very liberal person's) problem, which I think is a fairly common view:

    Let's use a real example – the NEA gave $150,000
    to the Martha Graham Dance Company to stage a revival of one of her works.

    This work will be performed… one single time.

    And if you'd like to see it, the cheapest tickets are $48, so you need to have a little expendable income. And you have to be free on a specific Thursday night in March, and in NYC.

    And if you're not, you're S.O.L.

    So this money provided work to a small group for a month or two. And now they're all out of work again. They entertained some moneyed New Yorkers for a night. How nice. We'll appply for another grant tomorrow.

    Invest $150,000 in a small business getting off the ground, though, and there's the chance that, with a helping hand, next year it can be self-sufficient. And the year after that it can grow, and employ more people. And those people spend money at other businesses, which helps them grow – etc, etc, etc.

    But there's no Goal Of Self-Sufficiency to an arts project. The jobs provided come with a built-in expiration date. That $150,000 project isn't even going to exist anymore, come April.

    And that's why any comparison between The Arts and alternative energy fails, the fundamental flaw in your argument. In a given year, $X might provide Y jobs – but next year, in a regular business, those jobs might still be there, and paying for themselves. In a year, ten years, twenty years, it won't need that $X anymore.

    There is no such idea in The Arts. The only future expectation is that next year, they will be asking for more money. They will employ the same number of people, give or take. And they will never, ever, get off the public dole.

    That is simply not a sustainable long-term business model.

  3. Judd: I don't know about the others, but I do know (at least the last time I looked closely) that the ASCAP and BMI PACs are almost completely devoted to furthering anti-piracy legislation. If I had time and clout, I think it might be interesting to get somebody like the US Conference of Mayors on board as well….

    Seth: No arts endeavor is a long-term sustainable “business model.” But no business is, either. (Take a look at the auto industry, the glory of 20th-century American capitalism—and, like Keynes said, in the long run, we are all dead.) The problem with judging the merit/deservedness of artistic activity by its sustainability under free-market capitalism is that the market consistently confuses value with price, and thus tends to misappropriate resources to the arts. And a reading of the tax code is enough to engender substantial skepticism that many businesses, small and large, are actually completely self-sustaining. Besides (and here's where the rhetoric comes in), one of the main reasons the arts get turned away from public funding is not their economic viability (though that will always be the stated reason), but the fact that the nature of such public funding is distorted to an unhealthy degree by the influence of political actors whose wealth makes $150K for a dance production look like chump change. What looks like self-sustainability is often just a result of effective rigging of the system. I would personally rather see that system rigged in favor of Martha Graham than the Koch brothers.

  4. We can't eliminate corn and soybean subsidies because millionaire farmers have grown to expect them. Plenty of companies (and jobs) depend on endless military spending. I just want to live in a country where we appreciate the value of encouraging artists. It's obviously hard to put a price on soul, but consider this: if we spent 1% of our “defense” spending on the arts, it would be between 5 and 6 billion dollars.

    Yes, people will make art with or without the NEA. But more people will make more art and more people will interact with that art if we help it along. I, for one, want to live in a country with as much art as possible.

  5. Of course a business might not self-sustain – but the hope of a business is to do that, and many do. They might eventually fold, but for the bulk of their existence – with some help in the form of grants or loans during their startup phase – most businesses receive no assistance. I'm not talking about the oil industry or the Koch Bros and whatnot, and to bring them up was completely off-topic. I'm talking about small businesses that make up the bulk of America's economy, that provide the bulk of America's jobs. I have my own issues with the money going to big oil and agri.

    “The Arts” do not even attempt to be self-sufficient, though. Nobody opens a store hoping to be on the dole. But arts orgs do just that. They have come to to expect subsidization as much as soy farmers.

    The nature of arts funding, as well, has always been unfair, as it is geared towards what a particular group of people consider the cultural “elite” – a violinist might get a piece of that pie, but a fiddler sure as hell won't. Again, that $150,000 is going towards producing an event that will occur ONCE, and will only be seen by select group – let's be honest, now, high society types who can afford tickets. It is subsidizing the entertainment of the Koch Bros of the world, should they choose to attend.

    I would love to live in a country with lots of art as well… but come to think of it, I do. There are artists everywhere making art much more interesting, to me, than that which is being made by the carefully curated “approved” organizations that the NEA divvies up its funds to.

    And if more people had jobs – long-lasting jobs, not just temporary ones – there would be more art in the world. Ask anyone who's been unemployed for an extended period of time with no economic resources to draw from: they're not making art. They have less free time than someone who's working, in many cases, because they're spending every waking moment just trying to figure out how to survive and pay the bills one more month. Making art requires tools which cost money: instruments, recording, paint, clay. It needs money to distribute, even if it's just paying for internet access – something we take for granted but many can't afford. Making art is a privilege of the comfortable. More people with jobs = more art.

    And of course, more people employed long term means more people with expendable income to use for CDs or shows or museum tickets. In the end, arts orgs still get the lion's share of their money from private individuals, not the state. And donations go down during economic slumps.

    I use small business as an example, but there are any number of other places I would just as soon see that $150G go: soup kitchens, shelters, medical care, medical research… heck, arts education.

    I think we underestimate our own resourcefulness, as well. I think we're so used to seeing the NEA logo slapped on things that we can't imagine them existing without it. But I'm convinced it would. Maybe the sets wouldn't be as ornate, or the catering as nice – but, perhaps with a bit of nickel and diming here and there, art will out. And I think it'd mean more, since we worked just that much harder, sacrificed just a little more, to make it happen ourselves.

    But that's just my opinion. YMMV.

  6. Seth: Yeah, my mileage varies significantly. My whole view starts with considering that the economy runs not on production, but on consumption—and the economy doesn't care where the money being spent comes from or goes. It certainly doesn't moralize about it the way you do. The $150,000 our hypothetical Martha Graham company members will subsequently spend back into the economy (irregardless of who sees the performance) is exactly as beneficial to the overall health of the economy as $150,000 a business owner would spend. And, actually, plenty of non-arts businesses are formed, or at least subsist, primarily on the basis of grants and handouts, especially from the government. (It's a subset of what's called rent-seeking; here's a classic paper on the subject.)

    I rather think the Koch brothers are germane: it's because of their sort of regulatory capture that most of the other options you mention have been forced, like the arts, to the margins of public funding. Cutting the NEA isn't going to free up more money for homeless shelters; cutting the NEA means homeless shelters are next on the block. (In as much as they aren't already.) If you think in terms of community sustainability rather than business sustainability, arts funding has a well-documented positive impact.

    And I certainly hope you don't really believe this:

    Making art is a privilege of the comfortable

    Um, like hell it is.

  7. Rent-seeking is (to paraphrase wikipedia) when an organization seeks to earn income through manipulation or exploitation of the economic or political environment, rather than by earning profits through economic transactions and the production of added wealth.

    I have two problems with this concept being added to the debate: first, what do arts organizations do? They are rent-seekers by any definition. And yet you condemn the activity when it's done by members of one group but give it a pass when it's done by members of another.

    Why? Because one group produces pretty pictures and pleasing sounds? Really, if we're to give a pass to certain industries because they make life sunshiney happy, we might as well subsidize Rocky Road ice cream.

    But the larger issue is that it's not even an issue at all: of course there are bad actors in any field. But the vast majority of small businesses are not rent-seekers. They are simply individuals or groups trying to sell a product or service to their local market and make a profit in doing so. To bring up those who game the system is to condemn all for the actions of what are truly a small percentage. I condemn those that do it as well, because they hurt those that play by the rules. But what you're doing would be a bit like me condeming ALL art-producing individuals or groups for the actions of the MGDC, etc. That would be silly. The vast majority of art producers aren't looking for a government handout, either.

    And the truth is, since arts orgs are rent-seekers (if an “acceptable” one) like any other, it only disproves your theory that the $150G the MGDC spends back into the economy is as beneficial as what a business owner would spend. The whole problem with rent-seeking is not just that money is given to the bad actors in the first place, but that the money is then spent on more rent-seeking rather than growth: every dollar spent on grant-writing, lobbying, whatever, is a dollar NOT spent on employees, capital goods, etc. Money simply changing hands doesn't make the economy grow. Sometimes it draws from it, in fact.

    I disagree somewhat that the economy runs not on production, but on consumption. It runs on both, because they're inextricably linked: the more consumed, the more produced.

    There are basically three things that grow an economy: increases in productivity based on consumption, international trade, and technological advances which increase the value of produced goods. GDP grows when companies increase the total value of their traded goods and services from one year to the next.

    An arts organization, like any rent-seeker, does none of these things. Simply paying someone a salary and then they go spend that money on coffee, bills, movies, whatever – that doesn't grow the economy. It helps keep the short-term local business cycle balanced, but it has no effect on growth, since no money from trade is being reinvested into the business or organization itself. The money they use to expand, when they do, comes from more charity. Their business – how they stay afloat – is, contrary to popular belief, not producing art. Their business is applying for grants.

    An arts org produces essentially the same amount of product/service from year to year, and what they produce is for all intents value-less. Now, now – I mean that simply in an economic sense, not a “spiritual” (or whatever) sense. Of course art has value in some ways. But not to the GDP. Simply put, the experience of seeing a performance has no more lasting value than a meal in a restaurant. Once it is consumed, it is gone.

    There's an enormous difference in how an arts organization spends its money vs. how a non-gaming small – or, heck, even large – business does. There are major, major differences – I don't think you'll find a single economist who'll agree that money spent is just money spent, regardless what it's spent on.

  8. Response, part two:

    As to my statement that “Making art is a privilege of the comfortable” – perhaps that was a bit black and white, but I stand by it.

    Anyone can pour some household cleaners on a bedsheet and hang it on the wall, or build sculptures out of refuse, or bang on some bottles if they're driven to do so. If you'd like to record that string quartet bouncing about in your head, on the other hand, you better have some money in pocket. If you want to play gutter-punk DIY dirty lo-fi rock'n'roll, you still need to be able to buy a guitar, amp, and drums.

    You can always make some art for nothing, sure – but you might not be able to make the art that you envision.

    And besides, by saying “like hell it is” – to say that you don't need income to realize art – you're countering your own argument. If that were the case, you're saying the MGDC could have made their art just fine without that $150G.


    On a side note, I'm wondering if you'd agree with me on one matter I brought up earlier, where I was willing to meet the idea of arts-funding halfway. That any and all art that was funded by taxpayer dollars in whole or part should be available, free of charge, to the public. I don't think that's unreasonable. After all, they paid for it.

  9. Seth: Nope, I like that make publicly-funded art public idea. Or at least cut ticket prices substantially.

    Just to be clear, on the grounds that, absolutely, arts organizations are rent-seekers, I don't have a problem with rent-seeking per se. It's easily abused, but so are most economic models.

    About the whole comfort thing: my experience is just the opposite, that artists give up a certain amount of comfortable living in order to make art. I mean, look at all the commenting on this thread—fractious, but smart and informed. Hell, we could all EASILY have been investment bankers.

    One of the greatest hidden costs of the under-appropriation of resources to art and artists in this country is that we have no idea how much great art simply never was produced because the potential creators opted out of artistic vocations solely because of financial considerations. I like to tell of the best career advice I ever got, from one of my comp professors: “Just keep doing it,” she said, “because, by the time you're 30, everyone else will have quit.” That she was spot-on accurate is a little depressing when you think about it in that way.

  10. This is anecdotal, not theoretical: as a small business person and a lover of the arts, I would absolutely love it if a lot more of my tax dollar was spent to help people make art, particularly to seed small organizations. A model for me is the WPA. I am constantly amazed by what was produced with WPA support, and I wonder how much of that would have seen the light of day without it. If public funding could lower ticket prices for folks who can't afford them, I would applaud that as well. Art feeds me. It feeds us all.

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