Strange Bedfellows

The occasions on which the Nonprofiteer agrees with the American Enterprise Institute are few and far between, so I want to highlight this one: a piece by Kevin Hassett and Phillip Swagel (in the August 30 Wall Street Journal, for those of you who can get to it) arguing that the Museum of Modern Art’s Economic Impact study, which boasts that MoMA "adds $600 million to $700 million to New York City incomes each year . . . . while boosting tax revenues and creating more than 4,000 jobs," is essentially nonsense. 

Messrs. Hassett and Swagel point out that this claim, familiar to most of us who live in cities where arts groups try to justify an increased portion of the public pie, assumes that "spending associated with the museum is new money."  In fact, though (they point out), most of what MoMA does would be done somewhere else if MoMA didn’t exist: cultural tourists would come to New York for other reasons, museum employees would go to work at other museums, gift-shop spending would go to other retailers. 

But before you burst a gasket presuming that they then argue for reduced funding of the arts, listen to this:

Even to hard-boiled economists like us, the museum’s contribution is best considered not in terms of jobs or tax revenues, but rather in the softer light of its addition to culture and enlightenment.  Sure, we could put a dollar figure on this with a well-designed survey, but we’re satisfied that it’s large and recognize that Americans are willing to provide about the current amount of tax subsidies.

You may wish to glance at an article I wrote for the Chicago Reader about the book The Creative Class, which promises that the arts can save central cities.  In addition to arguing with author Richard Florida’s insistence on a definition of city life that privileges young white men, I noted the flimsiness of his calculations about the economic benefits of the arts.  Yes, yes, I also wrote a piece called "Art for the Cities’ Sake" which makes Floridian/MoMA-esque economic claims–but, hey, that was back in 1978 when we were all young and foolish: suffice it to say I was then working for an outfit called Public Funding for the Arts.  (See "Return of the Medici," below.)

[For the relentlessly curious: the piece appeared in FOCUS: Midwest Magazine, which became the St. Louis Journalism Review but whose archives never made it to the Internet.]

Anyway, I’m delighted to have scholars from the opposite end of the political spectrum concur with me on this (if no other) subject.  Economists recommending that we value art for art’s sake: who’da thunk it?  Now if we can just get politicians–and arts groups–to do the same thing.

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3 Responses to “Strange Bedfellows”

  1. Anita Bernstein Says:

    As your cheapest reader (see my wsj.com post of Labor Day), I must lament the $1.95-by-credit card fee to read your Reader article (which looks right-on). Any alternative route, maybe a PDF link?

  2. Focus/Midwest Says:

    Actually, FOCUS/Midwest stopped publication in 1983, but is being revived (see focusmidwest.com). The St. Louis Journalism Review was a different publication that’s still around.

    • Nonprofiteer Says:

      Delighted to hear that FOCUS/Midwest is returning, and apologies for the misdirection to another publication.

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