Why the public should fund the arts, after all

December 13, 2011

A few weeks ago I had a fascinating conversation with Margy Waller, a special advisor to Cincinnati’s ArtsWave, which leads the nation in evidence-based approaches to advocating for arts funding. Ms. Waller had reached out to correct my misunderstanding (and therefore misreporting) of ArtsWave’s efforts, noting that the argument is not that the public should fund the arts to promote economic recovery but that it should fund the arts to promote neighborhood vibrancy. This nuance turns out to make all the difference.

Here’s the ArtsWave insight: people are ready enough to agree with the notion that the arts are good for the economy. But if you probe deeper, and ask what top three things we should do to improve the economy, no one answers “subsidize the arts.” So apparently the argument that the arts are an economic engine (true or false) is unpersuasive, which is what really matters.

But the ArtsWave research also uncovered the fact that if you ask people what would improve their neighborhood the most, the arts come up time and time again. Why? Because artists’ residences are known to herald an improvement in real-estate values; because arts audiences mean feet on the street and therefore greater public safety; because arts venues are known to spawn coffee shops and restaurants and other places of urban liveliness.

Therefore, the argument for public funding needs to be focused not on the art but on the public benefits of art-making.  This simultaneously ends the unwinnable argument about whether x or y is valid art or a useful expenditure of public funds and reminds people of what they believe anyway, that investment in arts-related infrastructure benefits everyone—not in some airy-fairy, soul-stirring, life-improving sense but in the grossest day-to-day experience of quality of life.

Thus an appeal to provide tax breaks to bring artists to a particular area would be framed not as a subsidy to these all-important art-making beings (read: overprivileged white people who ought to get jobs) but as a way to offset (maybe even reverse) the damage to property values wrought by foreclosures. The subsidy is to the value of private property (something that can be monetized) rather than to the value of art (something that cannot).

As instrumental and cold-blooded as this approach may seem, Ms. Waller makes the powerful point that vibrancy is what people love about the arts—and that weaving the arts into the fabric of other social needs and activities enables people to appreciate the arts “not as consumers but as citizens.”

That last point is particularly striking. Asked what citizens should do to respond to 9/11, then-President Bush had nothing more to offer than, “Go shopping.” Anything that enables us to respond to public concerns in a public spirit; anything that combats the notion that government is the problem and privatization the solution; anything that reminds us that we’re a republic if we can keep it; anything that illustrates we don’t have to buy something to value it—any of these is a consummation devoutly to be wished.

As a wise person once noted, the important thing is not to have BEEN right, but to BE right. I've been wrong in my blanket condemnation of public funding for the arts, because I thought of it exclusively in the frame established by its opponents: as subsidies to artists to create what might or might not actually be valuable. Once the framing shifts to “vibrancy,”* and to concrete benefits to the broader society, public arts support suddenly makes sense. No one else may care, but it will be a relief to me to stop being the only left-wing theater critic in the country opposed to public funding for the arts.

I still believe the NEA itself is a lost cause and that energy spent defending it would be better spent squeezing support for the arts out of HUD, Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac and local housing authorities. But that’s a matter of strategy. As a matter of principle, I'm grateful to have discovered a valid way to defend taxpayer support to something that matters so much to me.

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*Yes, “vibrancy” can be a euphemism for “gentrification,” or at least its prodroma.  But if we plan for vibrancy (instead of simply hoping that lightening strikes in this ‘hood or that), we can also plan to prevent displacement. And without displacement, “gentrification” is just another word for “safe streets, amenities and public services”—for everyone, rich or poor.