The End Of Arts Funding?

Across America, government is getting out of the arts business. While states like Massachusetts, California, Florida and Michigan slash their arts budgets by half or more, lawmakers in Colorado, Oregon and New Jersey consider eliminating their arts agencies altogether.

The last time state governments attacked a program with such cost-cutting zeal was welfare reform in the mid-'90s.

So why the arts, and why now? The obvious reason is that state governments are hurting for money and have big deficits they have to close. If it's a choice between arts and public safety or arts and roads, you know that truck has already left the turnpike.

Anticipating these all-too-familiar choices, arts leaders have spent much of the past decade churning out dozens of economic-impact studies to show that the arts are a great public investment: You want return? For every dollar government invests in nonprofit arts, eight dollars are returned to the economy. You want economic stimulus? The arts generated $134 billion in economic activity across America in 2001. You want jobs? The arts produce 4.85 million full-time equivalent American jobs. If money seems to be a language legislators understand, then arts leaders figured they'd give them economic ways to think about the arts.

The strategy seemed to be paying off, too. Between 1993 and 2001, state public spending on the arts more than doubled, from $211 million in 1993, to $447 million eight years later, according to the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies.

But those were boom years, and as soon as the economy started to sour, states began cutting their arts budgets, slashing $93 million combined in the past two years. This year's cuts could whack off another $100 million or more, bringing arts spending down to levels of a decade ago. Worse, the massive cuts don't just put a crimp in state arts funding, they cripple or eliminate longstanding core programs. Government is redefining its relationship with the arts while arts supporters are left sputtering their economic impact factoids and wondering why no one seems to be listening. (Pssst, have you heard that more people attended arts events last year than professional sports events?)

The reason the economic arguments don't make any difference is because 1) the arts cuts aren't about money, and 2) they're all about money. They aren't about money because saving $5 million or $10 million or $20 million on an arts budget is a puny thing when you're trying to close a deficit measuring in the billions. The arts are a good financial investment--and a cheap one, too, compared to many of the investments governments make. Proposing to eliminate arts funding isn't about recapturing an extra few million that would have been spent on arts--it's about making a statement: politicians demonstrating how serious they are about budget cuts. The arts are a highly visible target, and cutting them is a symbol of political resolve to solve a difficult problem. The cuts are all about money because arts administrators have made them about money. The culture wars of the late '80s and early '90s jolted artists, but more important, they terrified leaders of America's arts institutions, who feared that their ability to raise money was in jeopardy. Republicans made "zeroing out" the National Endowment for the Arts an official plank of the party's election campaign, and the culture wars became an ideological political crusade that seized upon incendiary images of crucifixes soaked in urine and chocolate-smeared performance artists to fuel partisan outrage.

In response, the art world ducked for cover, vowing to cut out the controversial art--at least for public-funding purposes. A succession of appeasement-minded NEA chairpersons traveled the country preaching the Neville Chamberlain doctrine, stressing populism, traditional values and above all, inclusiveness. Grants to individual artists disappeared, and arts funding seemed to become an exercise in PR for the arts.

How then to sell the arts to lawmakers weary of controversy? Back in 1965, Congress created the National Endowment for the Arts, proclaiming that "democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens." Americans have always been distrustful of elitism, but in the early days of the NEA there was a vision to sell: American culture could be the envy of the world (and beat the Soviets, who invested heavily in art and artists). The brash American spirit that had helped win World War II and rebuild Europe could be embodied by a culture that could produce superior citizens. The idea that government could also help bring the arts to every part of the land was heady stuff, and since 1965, some 4,000 state, local and regional arts agencies have sprung up across America.

But by the late '80s--with postmodernism and conceptualism making it difficult (if not impossible) to declare artistic standards that most people could go along with, multiculturalism eroding a sense of traditional cultural canon, popular culture dominating like never before and the culture wars turning entire art forms into toxic Superfund sites--appealing to a sense of excellence didn't seem like an effective strategy.

Instead of promoting culture as a means to "wisdom" and "vision" (the NEA's traditional pitch), the arts were paired up with social "goods"--arts as educational tool, arts working with troubled kids, arts promoting neighborhood improvement. To get an arts grant, an arts organization had to show its chops with whatever social agenda du jour was on the table. At the same time, arts agencies across America began assembling the bricks of an economic argument for the arts that would appeal to politicians.

It was not an unsuccessful strategy. The NEA survived the culture wars, state and local arts funding soared and billions were spent in the '90s on new theaters, museums and concert halls in an orgy of arts construction.

But--as the current arts-funding crisis suggests--the survival strategy might have topped itself out and ultimately killed public arts funding. By my estimation, a pure case for public funding of art for art's sake hasn't been made in more than a decade. By reducing arguments for art to economic impacts and by attaching art to laundry lists of social goods, art's been undersold, stripped of inspiration, vision and, yes, wisdom.

Playing art as economics forces you to play by economics' rules. That means drawing bigger audiences every year. That means improving your financial situation each quarter. And it means that others will continue to run their equations of profit and loss even when you'd rather they not (like now). Art may be a great economic investment, but if it's not an investment someone chooses to make, you're out of luck. Sorry, just business.

You can always tell a theater or symphony orchestra is on the ropes when it starts worrying more about getting people in the seats than it does about inspiring audiences; that's the point it has become a follower rather than a leader and that's when it slides into real trouble.

America has extraordinary artists. But for a decade now, public arts agencies that should have been promoting the best artistic vision have instead been following behind the public, trying to find a denominator that, if not lowest, is most common. The arts are not most common. The arts ought to lead. Public arts funding is important--for better or worse, money is how government signals what it thinks is important. But arts funding in America has been broken for a long time; if it doesn't find some compelling vision to inspire rather than follow, it won't just be broken, it will be gone.