A case for government funding of the arts, part 2

August 23, 2011

In response to my blog last week, "A Case for Government Funding of the Arts, Part 1," several readers posted comments which decried any connection between the arts and government, even calling for the disestablishment of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

These comments — which I expected — were posted by individuals who claimed to be ardent arts supporters, if not artists themselves. They were passionate yet intelligent statements that completely missed the point.

Here is the point: Whether artists like it or not, there ALWAYS has been interaction and interface between government and the arts, and there always will be. As a class of the governed, artists can choose to be part of the dialogue with those who govern, or artists can turn their backs and suffer the consequences of not representing their own interests in places of power. At present in the United States, the National Endowment for the Arts is the best seat at the table that artists have.

Since the arts emerged in prehistoric primitive cultures, they've always had a social obligation to interpret the spiritual and secular worlds in which they exist. The plays of ancient Greece, especially the comedies, were expected to comment on political policies and governance. The history plays of Shakespeare legitimized the Tudor monarchy. The triumphs of Renaissance religious art glorified the business (Christianity) of the boss (the Pope). The music of Mozart or Hadyn added sophistication and status to the courts of the monarchs who paid for it. In the modern era, Communist governments have poured tons of money into the arts in order to earn international prestige and provide a facade of humanism for often-repressive regimes.

The arts represent national prestige and national culture and usually prove to be more powerful as a legacy to the world than vast armed forces and territorial conquest. Virtually alone among developed nations, the United States mostly ignored the arts in any national or Federal sense until the NEA was established in 1965.

Now, artists always have been suspicious or fearful of government and rightly so. Where politics and the arts meet, there often has been censorship or attempted censorship. But the NEA was designed to minimize that possibility and largely has succeeded for two reasons: our Federal government cannot censor the arts, nor does it throw enough money at the arts to control them.

Thanks to the First Amendment, no elected or appointed official can tell an artist what he can or cannot express (short of shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater). If Congress or an administration is unhappy with the arts, all it can do is withdraw or reduce what little funding it provides, and this step has been taken several times.

The real magic, of course, is that it's not enough money to make a difference. A well-managed non-profit theater company, dance troupe, museum or arts academy will never depend on government funding for more than 5% of its total budget. But that 5% loosens the purse strings of far more generous foundation, corporate and individual donors who want to see that little statement: "Supported in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts." An NEA grant has become an imprimatur. It signals other potential funders that arts organization A or B or C meets certain standards of quality, innovation and business-like operation.

Some artists hate that part, too, believing that NEA bureaucrats decide which art is worthy and which is not, but that's not how it works. The NEA is organized around a system of peer review panels. For example, grants for non-profit theater companies aren't determined by full-time NEA employees but by a panel of artistic directors and managing directors assembled to review all grant applications in that category. They will come from theaters which are not themselves competing for money in that particular grant cycle. Museum grants will be reviewed by museum executives and curators, and so on.

These professionals work with sincere dedication to do the most with taxpayer resources. I know, because I've been an NEA panelist. In my case, we had 34 applications seeking $17.5 million in grants, but we only had $3.5 million to give out. We met for 12 hours a day over three hot, humid June days in Washington, D.C. in the NEA quarters in the Old Post Office Building. The air conditioning was shut off at 5 p.m., but we worked until 8:30 or 9 p.m. each night.

Our process determined that 31 of the 34 applications were worthy of support, so we prioritized them to receive a share of the $3.5 million. At the top of the list, a little-known institution requesting $20,000 received $17,500, the largest grant by percentage. At the bottom, a number of institutions received so-called entry level grants (which have varied yearly between $3,000 and $5,000). In between, several famous behemoth arts organizations requesting $350,000 received $150,000.

The work was hard and mentally demanding. For our labors, we panelists were flown to Washington economy class, put up in a modest hotel for three nights and given an honorarium of $150. We paid for our own meals. The vast bulk of NEA money goes to arts organizations and state arts agencies and not to bureaucracy, which is why I said last week that the NEA is a model of how a government agency should be run.

As modest as the NEA budget is, it provides an opportunity for artists to appear before Congress each year in a public forum to advocate on behalf of the arts, and to put elected officials on notice that culture matters. Even more, regional and national arts advocacy groups have sprung up to create an arts lobby at the Federal level and in statehouses, too.

Is the NEA ideal? No. Might there be better ways to fund the arts and protect them from censorship? Yes, but we don't have them and we probably won't get them. This is why the NEA is the best seat the arts have at the political table.

In its 46 year history, the NEA never has received more than $176 million, a mere 1/10,000th of the Federal budget at that time (the late 1980's). The same dollars today would be an even more infinitesimal fraction of the budget and purchase less. But the NEA hasn't received that much in over 20 years. The Obama request for Fiscal 2012 is $146 million, of which the House of Representatives has approved $135 million. The final number remains to be worked out between the Senate and the House.

The good news is that the Republican-controlled House has soundly rejected several Republican-sponsored proposals this summer to kill the NEA outright. Even GOPers seem to "get it" about the NEA and the arts, at least for the time being.
Now, if only all my blog readers — and my colleague Kelly Kleiman — got it, too!