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.