Fuel for the NEA fire(s)

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(Aurora, IL)

I’m going to challenge myself to do something a little different today, and write a post both for and against defunding the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), National Endowment for Humanities (NEH), and Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). I’ll focus on the NEA, though I feel strongly the other organizations are equal in importance. A disclaimer before we begin: I currently work in the arts, in a community organization that is not NEA funded, but is funded through taxes.  Our programming as a whole encompasses athletics, arts, parks, community activities, pre-school, senior programming, and a whole lot in between. We also receive revenue from program fees, and a very small percentage from private donations.

First, a little background about the funding structure of US art organizations- only a summary mind you! The NEA is a piece of federal funding. The US Government allocates a budget (last year $147.9 million) to the NEA, who then allocates funds to state agencies. Some of the funds are given out through direct NEA grants in a variety of areas, for which applicants must submit detailed applications. State agencies allocate funds at a state level, the NEA at a national level. Most organizations receive additional funding through corporate or foundation grants, private donations, and revenue from tickets or admission. The US Budget last year was $3.9 trillion dollars, so with those numbers, it means the total budget for the NEA was .004 percent. So that’s 4 cents out of your one hundred dollars.

The argument for defunding:

Without getting too deep into economics, a subject I enjoy but am certainly not an expert in, A free market is one that allows “the invisible hand” of the market to decide which activities succeed, and which fail. Governmental oversight, regulations, etc. are all removed from the economy, and the success is dependent on the consumer, who chooses which to consume. The free market has also become a sort of subjective term for capitalism, which means activities exist for profit, and are not controlled by the state (i.e. communism). Theoretically, this gives all power to the consumer, by allowing them to choose by voting with their wallet. Services or products are reliant on quality, price, brand, and ethics to succeed. This applies to all your purchases right now as a free individual! If you don’t like a company, don’t buy their product.

This type of economy is sort of like what we have in the US, but we have distorted it by imposing regulations, taxes, and subsidies because we don’t live in a utopia. Theoretically, a free market would rule out companies that pollute, provide unsafe products, etc. but sadly that isn’t the case, as we’ve seen throughout history.

Subsidies prop up parts of the economy that would otherwise fail, due to market events, natural causes, or consumer demand. Agriculture for example has huge subsidies in the US, because of its importance to the economy and strong lobbying in congress. If agriculture suffers, the US will also take a major hit. In many cases, and on other blogs, there are likely discussions about agriculture subsidies, healthcare subsidies, etc. because many companies have taken advantage of them. Subsidies can also act as a sort of “non-consuming” consumer. The government may pay a farmer for his silo full of corn, but that corn will never actually be used. Producers may also benefit from tax breaks, incentives, and other “artificial” market influences. So you see how they can get tricky.

This same concept applies to the arts, in the form of grants. Nobody says the arts are subsidized, because that doesn’t quite make sense. There is nothing to subsidize. The government can’t buy art as a concept, because art is dependent on being brought into existence in the first place. So grants offer a chance for artists and organizations to have the funds to pay for the art, supplies, research, wages, and other costs which go into the art itself. Because art has a non-monetary value, it is dependent on the appraisal and inherent values society ascribes to it. Two paintings may be exactly the same in outward appearance- but what is the value of a painting produced by a robot, vs. produced by a human hand?

As this is an argument for defunding, the main point would be to let the market decide if they want art. If a community truly values its theatre, then theoretically they would pay enough in revenue and private donations to keep it open. From a market perspective, a theatre that doesn’t make enough in ticket sales to stay open, it shouldn’t stay open.

Many organizations who do receive funding year after year could come to rely on this funding, and because of this can take more risks such as staging a show that might not be popular or sell well. In this case, the incentive to provide what consumers want has been removed. The necessity to pay back the grant giver has also been removed, as a grant is different than a investment, which would fit better into the role of a Producer in commercial or market driven theatre. Producers do expect to make their money back.

Also, the NEA does not fund individual projects (only writers and translators), due to the historical objection to funding of artists like Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano. A case could be made here for free speech. Another post, another day!

Grants create an uneven playing field for artists and artistic organizations, and do not allow consumer to decide what they wish to support. If art truly wishes to be free, then it needs to be freed of constraints in artificial funding. Because of the ascribed value of art, there is no way to assess the appropriate amount of funding for projects. A large theatre, for example, should sell more seats than a small one, and may require a larger grant to recover overheads and expenses, but does that make one show more valuable than the other?

Fight for funding:

NEA Funding does not just benefit large organizations. It also benefits community groups, rural organizations, youth programming, and many other groups who wouldn’t exist without funding. Often, programs are free admission or extremely low cost, which is a huge benefit to communities who otherwise would not have access to the arts. These groups use the funds to pay wages, pay rental fees, pay for supplies, pay for essentials to their programming. As I come from a business and arts background, it makes sense to me why something as effective as an arts driven program are important to fund. The arts are not being funded, rather, the benefits to the community and participants are.

Arts and culture are an essential part of society. Imagine our collective human history without museums, music, galleries, and theatres. If we value the Athenians for democracy, should we not also pay heed to the cornerstone of theatre in their society? Imagine where we would be without creativity. Creativity is an essential component of learning and development, which benefits and individual years down the road. NEA-funded programs benefit our society through the skills gained by workers and children, art therapy for veterans, and one of the biggest benefits, tourism. Think of Times Square without theaters, DC without the museums, (and on a smaller level, Chicago without the “bean”!) and how quiet the nearby cab drivers, restaurants and shops would be without the arts to draw the crowds in. They create rich cultural fabrics in our cities, and gathering spaces for our neighborhoods. NEA funding provides organizations resources to create jobs, retain quality workers, and recruit a diverse workforce. (Information on how many jobs in industry here). Our tax dollars go towards guns and roads, salaries and buildings and hosts of programs. The value we place on these things is different for every American. We all have to give money to people and causes we don’t agree with, and towards services we may never use, because we live in a complex society. The elderly pay school taxes and the rich subsidize insurance for the poor because these policies aim to make our society stronger.

The most important part of this argument however, has more to do with the societal statement the United States sends by saying it does not support arts and culture, because that is what defunding these programs says. We are the only developed country without universal, single payer healthcare. We are far behind other nations in gender equality (1 to 5 ratio of female to male representation in government). Income inequality is huge. Gun control is depressingly pitiful. A large minority of us are still struggling to recover from the recession. We are vandalizing cemeteries, throwing insults at people different than us, and banning foreigners from entering a country of foreigners. Despite the safety of our borders in recent history, we are increasing funding for defense, building up the military and telling the world we are frightened. We are racist. We are misogynistic. We are afraid of progress.

The arts may not provide huge revenues, though according to this study, this study, this study, and many others, they do. But what they do provide is an opportunity to approach these issues which form society from a consumer’s standpoint, and consider our place in them. They encourage our brains to form new connections, they provide an escape, they provide mental, physical and spiritual health benefits. They provide employment directly and indirectly. They encourage discussions, build communities, and allow us an outlet for freedom of speech. Every other developed country in the world funds the arts, because they value their heritage, their culture, and their artists. We should too.

The United States will be taking another turn for the worse if we defund the NEA.

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