The commonly held perception that the government provides all of the funding for the arts, distributed through the National Endowment for the Arts, is inaccurate and misleading. In truth, private and corporate donations account for a substantial part of the money that is distributed nationally each year. In the current economic environment, a partnership between the government, corporate and private donors represents an attractive scenario in which the arts would thrive free of the influence of the government. In this paper, it is argued that a more expansive concept of arts funding must be realized if the nation is to continue to benefit from the gifts that the arts bestows, both in aesthetic and practical terms.
Keywords: National Endowment for the Arts; donations; government
America’s worst economic downturn since the Great Depression has brought an already incendiary debate over the role of government in the nation’s cultural life into razor-sharp relief. The traditionally conservative-based argument against federal funding for the arts has gained stridency, with many contending that a spiraling economy requires austere measures in the form of budget cuts. Near the top of their list is the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), an agency that has, in recent years, become a lightning rod in the battle over fiscal policy. Those who contend that in periods of economic crisis the arts are particularly vulnerable counter that the NEA should not be neglected. The ideological battle lines have been drawn according to this argument: should the government subsidize funding for the arts during times of severe financial stress? Ultimately, the nation’s altered economy will require a lasting accommodation in which government and the private sector partner so that the arts are assured of fiscal support regardless of the nation’s economic fortunes.
Over the past 30 years, America has witnessed a gradual shift to the right in terms of federal fiscal policy. This has made of the NEA and its role a battleground for the most articulate voices from the right and left of the political spectrum. And, as is typical of modern
American politics, the issue waffles from right to left depending on which political party is in power. In a 2011 New York Times op ed, Michael Royce, executive director of the New York Foundation for the Arts, pointed out that arts funding should not be subjected to the vagaries of politics in light of the fact that the nonprofit arts industry accounts for more than $160 billion and nearly 6 billion jobs (Royce, 2011). Funding this sector of the economy is important but, given the political climate, requires a more hybridized approach to funding. Royce urges that America arrive at “a policy model that stimulates greater government and corporate support of the arts, that directly reaches working artists and that encourages creativity on the part of the funders to maximize and increase all available resources” (2011).
NEA opponents argue that the government should limit or abolish arts funding in light of the nation’s continuing struggle with the after-effects of a deep recession. They point out that the arts already receive approximately $13 billion annually from private donations (Americans for the Arts, 2009). As such, they contend that it should be a simple matter to shift the financial burden of arts funding away from government to the private sector. This, many have argued, is a practical and attainable goal given that America’s “culture of philanthropy is unrivaled,” and that the perception that government has always provided the majority of arts funding is incorrect (Nathanson, 2012). Conversely, there are those who argue that America’s arts community would be permanently undermined without government footing the vast majority of the bill. However, such a heavy reliance on government support invites government control, with men such as House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) lobbying for an end to exhibits they find personally offensive, as happened recently when an exhibit was pulled from the National Portrait Gallery.
David Boaz, executive director of the Cato Institute, writes that the very nature of art, which is intended to inspire, excite and even outrage our sensibilities, does not lend itself to the kind of control that widespread government funding implies. Boaz asserts that government is concerned with coercion. “In a free society coercion should be reserved only for such essential functions of government as protecting rights and punishing criminals. People should not be forced to contributeto artistic endeavors that they may not approve, nor should artists be forced to trim their sails to meet government standards” (Boaz, 2012). Thus, as Boaz argues, the best scenario is one in which government involvement in the arts is marginal, with only a portion of arts funding coming from federal and state coffers. Government should be involved, but as one part of a multi-party partnership that includes corporate and individual philanthropy.
A 2011 Psychology Today article argued in opposition to those who would abolish federal arts funding. The article postulated that human innovation and creativity, which are crucial in all aspects of social endeavor (including business), depends heavily on the arts, particularly on funding for arts education in America’s school systems. Significantly, there appears to be a correlation between the arts and creativity in many areas. As such, “continuing participation in arts and crafts across a lifetime (is) one of the strongest correlates to generating patents and new companies” (Root-Bernstein, 2011). Thus, the implications of cutting government funding for the arts, and arts education, are significant in that the arts appear to be an extensive and wide-ranging source of economic stimulus (2011). However, the Psychology Today article admits that “causality cannot be determined by thesefindings” (2011).
Consequently, arguing that America’s commercial and artistic future would be imperiled without full government funding is specious and incomplete.
This is not to argue that creativity, an invaluable resource in all walks of life, is not aided by artistic endeavors and education. It is simply that, where funding is concerned, a more expansive concept is needed. “In this setting, the political problem is a difficult one: we must structure institutions to satisfy the expressive demands for a certain kind of state, while keeping rights violations to a minimum, commanding a broad social consensus for free and liberal institutions, and stimulating artistic creativity” (Cowen, 2003). The resultant policy should mitigate the extent to which a predominant source of funding wields influence over the arts. The aim is to create a balance, which would be acceptable to people with “strongly differing views, aesthetic or otherwise” (2003). In the final summation, the arts can be fully enfranchised, free of government control, in a scenario that includes government funding and other, “non-coercive” sources of financial support.
The arts establishment in America, which most agree is important to the nation’s well-being from both an aesthetic and practical standpoint, must be free from an over-dependence on any single source of funding, particularly from the government. To that end, funding should be regarded as a matter in which all have an interest, and to which all should contribute, including the government, commercial and private sectors. This would create a “balance of power” in which no one faction could hold undue influence over the fruits of a robust and vital artistic community. This would preserve the kind of division that the nation’s founders foresaw vis a vis the government and private sectors.
The purpose of this essay was to review and assess the arguments over whether the government should be the predominant source of funding for the arts (through the National Endowment for the Arts). More importantly, it provides a middle ground argument in which the government is only one source of funding. It is to be hoped that the reader will reach an understanding of the implications of government funding on the integrity of the arts.
I learned that art is too important a resource to be subjected to undue government control. This is often the result when the government gains a large measure of financial oversight, whether officially or unofficially, through taxpayer funds. My perspective was modified by this assignment. I always supported full government funding, but came away believing that a more hybrid approach is called for in the current economic environment.
The arguments both for and against can be quite convoluted, even confusing. There are many shades of gray in the more sophisticated arguments that have been made for both and against federal funding. As such, there was some difficulty in maintaining a line of reasoning that followed the thrust of the paper’s main contention, namely that there should be a compromise arrangement for funding the arts.
I am a devotee of the arts and enjoy all facets. As such, I have always been a believer that the arts has much to offer all Americans, whether they realize it or not. As well, I am of the opinion that the arts is too important to be left solely under the auspices of government support, and that a more versatile arrangement is needed to preserve the arts in America.
“Arts Facts: Private Sector Philanthropy.” Americans for the Arts. The Center on Philanthropy
at Indiana University, 2009.
This fact sheet provides charts showing the level of giving among corporations, individual donors and foundations over the 15 years. It breaks down dollar figures and percent of total philanthropy over that period.
Boaz, David. “Separation of Art and State.” The New York Times. 1 May 2012.
The executive vice president of the Cato Institute writes that arts funding provides an argument for the separation of “art and state.” Art, Boaz argues, is a matter of individual taste, sensibility and cultural appreciation. As such, it is not a quantifiable entity and the government has no business seeking to control it through funding, or in any other respect. Boaz proposes a situation in which art is freed from governmental influence in the way that the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion.
Cowen, Tyler. Symbolic Goods: The Liberal State in Pursuit of Art and Beauty. Fairfax,
Virginia: George Mason Univ., Ph.D. Dissertation.
Cowen addresses American arts policy, examines different policy models and speculates on what a refined, renewed approach to arts funding should look like. Specifically, he is concerned with the advantages and disadvantages of direct versus indirect funding. Ultimately, Cowen claims that the conflicting opinions, disagreement and compromise inherent in the American system of government will prove beneficial to an overhauled approach to arts funding.
Royce, Michael. “Incentives for Private Support.” The New York Times. 2011.
Royce argues for a policy that motivates joint government and corporate support for the arts. Such a structure would benefit the creativity not only of artists but among the donors, particularly in the corporate sector, which relies on innovation. Royce calls for enhanced incentives for private support among the corporate and not-for-profit sectors.
Root-Bernstein, Michele & Robert. “Imagine That! Artsmarts: Why Cutting Arts Funding is not
a Good Idea.” Psychology Today. 14 February 2011.
This article examines the effect of arts and arts education on the creativity of young people in terms of their long-term development. The arts, which offer the means for developing creativity, are an important resource for stimulating the economy. While the article does not claim proof of causality, the assertion is that without a fully funded arts establishment, America would be at a distinct disadvantage in many important areas.
Nathanson, Beth. “American Philanthropy is Unrivaled.” Playwrights Horizons. 2 May 2012.
Arts development director Beth Nathanson writes that America’s philanthropic tradition has proven sufficient to the challenge of funding the needs of the arts community. Nathanson writes that the idea that the government has always provided the majority of funding for the arts is misguided and inaccurate. The article promotes the efforts of individual donors, who have historically provided a substantial amount of funding for the arts.