Monday, February 02, 2009

Renewing Support for the Arts in the US: Low-Hanging Fruit

As widely reported (including on NPR's website):
The authors of [Obama's] stimulus package ...have included $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts and $150 million for infrastructure repairs at the Smithsonian.
In a package of almost a trillion dollars, one would assume aiding a sector of the economy that employs 5.7 million people (according to Michael Kaiser, head of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts) with such a small percentage of the funds would not raise many eyebrows, but once again we see that Conservative thinkers in this country have never seen any public money spent toward preserving those jobs that couldn't be used as a wedge issue to further their agenda:
"There is absolutely no way this will stimulate the economy," argues Brian Riedl, a senior federal budget analyst for the Heritage Foundation. He believes funding for the NEA — like several other items in the stimulus package — will not grow the economy.

"The only way to increase economic growth is to increase productivity," Riedl says. "Government policies that make people and workers more productive will increase productivity. But simply borrowing money out of the economy in order to transfer it to some artists doesn't increase the economy's productivity rate. It doesn't help workers create more goods and services, and it won't create economic growth."
For those who may not know them, the Heritage Foundation has opposed the use of any public funding to support the arts in the US--an argument they have every right to advance---but do so by cherry picking highly controversial works and suggesting there is a "true" art (and what one must assume is false art). They also insist that they aren't "anti-art" just because they oppose public funding. How vehemently they oppose it, and the arguments they make in justifying their opposition, however, undercut that insistence.

Side note: how informed their most vocal critics of NEA funding are is well illustrated by the hysterical irony of this statement in a piece by Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D., opposing Terrence McNally's play "Corpus Christi":

Know how you can get the government to fund religion? Produce a play depicting Jesus as a practicing homosexual and call it "art." [...] Don't confuse my opposition to the NEA as opposition to the arts. I'm just saying that true art will survive without federal handouts. The NEA didn't exist before 1965, but that didn't stop Tennessee Williams and Frederic Remington from blessing us with their works. [emphasis mine]
er...uh...where to begin?

Whether or not the additional funding for the NEA makes it through the transparently politically expedient opposition by the conservative wing of American politics, there is new hope that some progress can be made in using government (our government) to structure our laws in ways that are less hostile to the arts. Recently on the Art Newspapers website, David Ross, former director of the Whitney Museum, ICA Boston and SFMOMA, offered 10 immediate steps that the Obama administration could take toward renewing the arts in the US. Many of these are items we've discussed before, but never as a unified approach to hopefully moving past the culture wars. Mr. Ross explains the context for his 10 suggestions:
Restoring health to the American cultural community is but one of a vast and daunting set of tasks confronting President-elect Obama. And the success of this plan will depend on a number of factors, including the dedication and generosity of many individuals across the country, as well as the willingness of American artists to do their part in the re-building. But I believe that by implementing these suggested policies and actions, President Obama would provide the impetus and infrastructure upon which the rest of us could bring about critically necessary and truly meaningful change.
Here, for our input and/or debate, are Mr. Ross's recommendations:
1. Support the tax code amendment currently in the works that would give artists tax incentives for donating their work to public museums, and fully restore the tax incentive for gifts of appreciated property to museums and other non-profit educational organisations.

2. Re-establish a programme employing artists in a wide range of cultural institutions.

3. Revive and rebuild the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, de-politicising their processes, and providing them with budgets necessary to support the American cultural community. Nothing less than annual appropriation of $750m (as opposed to $290m today) is needed.

4. Create an independent study of the operating expenses of our museums and libraries, and then fund the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) sufficiently, so that the core costs of our museums and libraries can be properly met. (The same should be done in support of reinvigorating the infrastructure of our institutions of music, dance and theatre.)

5. Invest in art and music education for all school pupils, and ensure that these efforts are coordinated with the increased spending in direct artist support, as well as renewed institutional infrastructure and programme support.

6. Rebuild a new Arts America programme to allow American artists, musicians, dancers and writers to serve as cultural ambassadors and help rebuild the image of the United States around the world.

7. Simplify and expedite the process for obtaining (de-politicised) visas for visiting foreign artists, musicians and academics.

8. Restore direct federal and state grants for artists, musicians and writers (including critics).

9. Establish either a cabinet-level Secretary for Art and Culture, or at the very least, create a White House arts advisory office to coordinate and show presidential support for American culture.

10. Create an emergency bailout fund for cultural institutions in dire need during this current credit crisis. At least $250m will be necessary, but this is a drop in the ocean when compared with the value these institutions return to the nation as a whole. This single act will affirm to all that the federal government will not stand by and allow these great resources to falter.
I don't think it's likely that a cabinet-level Secretary for Art and Culture will be realized (this after talking with a journalist friend covering the Obama campaign and who's spent many years in D.C. covering politics), but then again, as the new President has noted, nothing can stand in the way of millions of voices calling for change, so it kind of depends on us, doesn't it?

Which of these actions would you speak up for?

Labels: arts funding


Anonymous Oriane said...

Clearly Edwin J., PhD, knows good theater when he sees it. But Ed, are you implying that Tennessee Williams was a practicing homoseksyooal? How dare you attempt to besmirch the reputation of someone who is no longer here to refute such spurious charges? I'm shocked, SHOCKED, to find gambling going on in this establishment.

ps David Ross wants to reestablish a programme? When did he become British?

2/02/2009 10:45:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

It's not just that Williams was so experienced that it makes no sense to call him a "practicing" homosexual (he was quite the expert), but that one of the goals of his works seemed to be to push buttons, stir debate, and move the country forward on issues that no one else was willing to talk about. In other words, to do exactly what McNally is doing.

The Art Newspaper is published in the UK, hence their "correction" of Mr. Ross's spelling.

2/02/2009 10:51:00 AM  
Blogger Christopher/Mark said...

Too bad the Heritage Foundation didn't have its money in Bernie Madoff's funds.

2/02/2009 11:15:00 AM  
Anonymous steplikeagiant said...

I would speak out for all and #5 in particular. As an artist who pays the mortgage as a computer programming instructor, I am routinely presented with unproductive students who have no creative problem solving skills. Though I obviously can't prove the correlation between this and a lack of arts in the schools, I can say this: my students age 30+ have creative permission. They are not afraid to make mistakes. Maybe it is age, but maybe it is the fact that 10 years ago, arts in the schools started to disappear - at least in my community. Generally, those under 30 can't or won't do anything creative. For example, they ask me how to make up their own data. I am not kidding. They are afraid to do anything that is "not in the instructions." How productive is that?

2/02/2009 12:19:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

positively brilliant example of the symbiosis of the arts and science that every serious leader in the country should understand the importance of, steplikeagiant...thanks for sharing.


2/02/2009 01:00:00 PM  
Blogger David said...

Thanks for defending my spelling, Ed. I am glad you've opened up my list for discussion, and will gladly take part in this string as it develops.

2/02/2009 01:22:00 PM  
Blogger kalm james said...

Comrades, as with much of the change put forward by our glorious leader, we must be ever vigilant of unintended consequences. These grants and funding schemes will of course come with strings attached. Many of the ten recommendations are mere sources for propaganda points

“…allow American artists, musicians, dancers and writers to serve as cultural ambassadors and help rebuild the image of the United States around the world.” Somehow I never considered the job description of being an artist to include being a “nationalistic” ambassador.

Institutions will become evermore bureaucratic (artists love bureaucracy, right?) and there will be a governmental version of “art” that will be fostered at the expense of everything else.

“A government that feeds you can not free you”, and art is essentially about freedom.

2/02/2009 01:30:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Thanks for your willingness to join in the discussion, David.

What, if anything, have you heard about developments on item #9?

"Establish either a cabinet-level Secretary for Art and Culture, or at the very least, create a White House arts advisory office to coordinate and show presidential support for American culture."

I had heard a few names mentioned for a while there and then nothing more.

2/02/2009 01:36:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

The Stimulus package has become fodder for pork and politics. We get stuff like...

"The only way to increase economic growth is to increase productivity," Riedl says. "Government policies that make people and workers more productive will increase productivity.

Well folks, read Paul Krugmans blog I think he is one of the economists with a handle on the present problems and the potential solutions.

Productivity isn't the problem right now. But it's one of those corporate buzz works which means more output per dollar cost on the input side (labor materials etc). The problem is that consumption has collapsed, it doesn't matter if you can make cheaper widgets if you can't sell them.

Looking at the list, I'm in favor of them all but I want to look at it from a pragmatic point of view.

1. Tax code amendment. This should be lobbied for as a part the stimulus package which already will have other tax cuts in it. It's the Republicans arguing for more tax cuts so they cannot fairly object.

2. Program employing artists: Short of WPA style program, I don't think this has much of a chance of being implemented. It's a longshot.

3. NEA and NEH boost. I'm in favor of this but I seriously doubt the budget numbers suggested have a chance of gaining support. However, I think there is a chance of lobbying for an increased operating budget. I would also try to get some form of inflation indexing included in the budget process.

4. ok (I have no knowledge of how this currently works)

5. Art and music education: I think this is an important investment in the future. It could be implemented using the domestic peace corps (it has a name but??) and an expansion of education spending which seems to be in the program.

6. Arts America program. This opens up a can of worms, probably best handled by the private sector for a profit.

7. Visas. This is a no cost policy change which could be implemented tomorrow if there wasn't a Department of Homeland Security

8. Restore grants. In theory great idea but who administers them. If these end up causing so much negative publicity for the sponsoring government institutions, then I'd leave it to the private sector.

9. Secretary for the arts. No.

10. Bailout fund for cultural institutions. I'd favor this over items like #2 or #6 because it can have a longer term benefit for the nation. Events like the dissolution of the Rose Art Museum could be prevented maintaining an irreplaceable legacy

2/02/2009 03:08:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

11. I get a pony.

There are legitimate reasons not to spend public money on art, but the Republicans haven't been making them. (For instance, when you hear politicians promising to de-politicize a federal process, you should simply stop listening. It's like promising that we'll all jump in the water and not get wet.) Instead they've been trying to play these wedge issues, which has stopped working. Maybe they need to lose a third election cycle. Heritage argues against the transfer of public funds for dubiously productive enterprises against a backdrop of its support for the Iraq war, for which we are paying $340 million a day. The disconnect resists explanation, to say the least.

2/02/2009 07:27:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

is this "true art"?

2/03/2009 05:52:00 AM  
Anonymous David Richardson said...

I endorse the full list as a way to increase productivity and innovation in the U.S. economy by supporting culture. Yes, get the banks working and lending as soon as possible. Yes, restore the infrastructure (said to require several trillion $). Yes, attack the health care problem before it drags us all down the drain). But let's get intelligent, persuasive people lobbying for the arts and explaining how art and culture lead to productivity. The small arguments abut what is the best kind of art, about who is up and who is down, pale before Steplikeagiant's example - something we can all see everyday. Yes, the government will screw things up. But anyone who has lived in a small city or town where the arts have been supported and appreciated as an economic driver for a moribund community will understand. This isn't about giving artist's unused store front spaces to make styrofoam installations. It's about the kind of creative thinking that leads to Apple computer's OSX, or the financial wizard who's going to know how to remake the U.S. economy that can steer us away from financial instruments and manipulations and toward a productive economy that works for everyone. The long discussions over the Brandeis situation, and countless other examples, illuminate the disconnect that exists and that must be overcome and I say get some powerful, persuasive people on the field for our side.

2/03/2009 08:57:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As much as I love art I must say that there is really no point in using funds to fix up exhibit spaces if people can't afford to visit. I think tours are the last thing on the mind of the average citizen today.

Why are they giving some of the money to the film industry? A lot of people are seeing this as nothing more than a payoff to special interest groups that supported Obama. If this keeps up he is no different than Bush.

If the government is going to be involved directly in the arts we should see balanced exhibits intead of dozens of exhibits each year that attack conservative views and Christians. Most galleries cater to what 50% of the population supports. Often less.

2/03/2009 05:52:00 PM  

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