Second (and third) thoughts about public funding for the arts

The Nonprofiteer was in Bloomington, IL, last weekend to see Ailey II, the farm team of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre.  (It’s such a shame there are no cultural offerings closer to Chicago!)  As she watched this astonishing company perform to an ecstatic crowd in a converted Masonic Temple building, a lightbulb went on over her benighted head.

Of course you’re indifferent to public funding for the arts, you dodo; you live in Chicago, where major performers and exhibitions will show up anyway.  Public funding for the arts isn’t for Chicago–it’s for Bloomington.

And she remembered growing up in Baltimore, which is not a small town but which waited for months between visits of major dance companies; and she remembered the thrill of seeing those dance companies for the first time.  And she realized (0r remembered) that that’s the real point of public funding for the arts: to make available to everyone the thrill of exposure to first-rate art.  Everyone: that means people who live in Bloomington, and International Falls, and Arroyo Hondo, even though the free market would not support a stop in any of those places by the latest tour from the Joffrey or the Royal Shakespeare Company or the Met.

Doubtless her arts-administrator readers are thinking “Duh!”–but cut the Nonprofiteer some slack.  The conversation about public funding for the arts has for 30 years been a clash between the Jets of “We’re artists!  Art is important so if you challenge the value of anything we create you’re a boob and a censor and a miser!” and the Sharks of “We’re ordinary people!  We don’t want our tax money spent on things we don’t grasp or approve of so that over-educated sissies can avoid getting jobs!”  Needless to say, this has not been a very productive debate, unless by “productive” you mean “of hysteria and hostility.”

But if it’s public funding for the performance of the arts, or their exhibition, or education about them–if it’s public funding for the arts audience, who can disapprove?  Except in the deepest reaches of the glibertarian right, we’re beyond debating whether education should be publicly funded, and making arts displays and performances available to the widest possible audience is simply public education on a grand scale.  Yes, yes, the Nonprofiteer knows: education isn’t well-funded either; but relatively few people argue that public funding for education is just a plot to spread disgusting lies, or to keep teachers from having to work.  Let’s get the discussion about public funding for the arts to the level of conceptual agreement we have for public education, and then we can engage in any further battles that might need to be fought.

In other words, brethren in the arts community: stop talking about public funding for the arts as if the point were for the public to support YOU.  No one cares about you.  What we care about as a society is US, and how exposure to what you do will improve us.

And once you accept that, you have to accept another, equally painful truth, which is that no one can actually determine what’s “art” til at least 25 years after it’s been created.  Probably the Nonprofiteer doesn’t need to remind you that people threw things at the stage the first time they saw and heard The Rite of Spring, now part of the musical canon.  But what she probably does need to point out is that this doesn’t mean the public should accept and/or fund every objectionable thing it sees in hopes that it will ultimately turn out to be art.  Rather, it means that support for creation is a mug’s game, a gamble at which most players lose, and that the public should instead put its money into presentation.

Many arts advocates roll their eyes at this and ask from where, then, money for creation is supposed to come.  The Nonprofiteer refers those people to the Guggenheim Foundation and  3Arts/Chicago and the Rosenwald Fund and all the other agencies of private patronage that have supported artists and their creative process over the years, and urges them to reach out to reestablish private patronage.  Yes, yes, times are financially tough; but if Julius Rosenwald could single-handedly support the Harlem and Bronzeville Renaissances throughout the Depression, surely our contemporary moneybags can do as well.*

Or, as Rabbi Joshua said much more succinctly: render unto Caesar . . .

Let the public fund what benefits the public, and let private wealth make possible acts of private creation.


*Note that this required that the Rosenwald Foundation spend itself out within 25 years of the founder’s death.  In Rosenwald’s eyes that was a feature, not a bug (as our software colleagues would say); but it requires the philanthropist to value what s/he accomplishes above how s/he’s remembered.


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11 Responses to “Second (and third) thoughts about public funding for the arts”

  1. Scott Walters Says:

    As a former resident of Bloomington IL, it is nice seeing its name in the theatrosphere. That said, I’d like to suggest another lightbulb that you might consider turning on: arts funding isn’t about Big City Companies paying ambassadorial visits to the unwashed hinterland, but rather should be about the development and support of local artists who live within a community, interact with that community, and do so on a permanent basis. It isn’t the Peace Corp, it is Grameen Bank.

  2. Nonprofiteer Says:

    Fair point: arts funding isn’t JUST about touring companies, though I doubt anyone would dispute that the opportunity to see one of the half-dozen best dance troupes in the world is 1) independently worthwhile and 2) qualitatively different from the opportunity to see/interact with/participate in local companies. Or, to borrow your analogy: it isn’t JUST Grameen Bank; it’s also the Peace Corps. But of course I acknowledge the significance of local companies; that’s the strength of the Chicago arts community as well. It just wasn’t the thought I happened to be having during a touring performance of a national company.

  3. Tony Adams Says:

    I think both are necessary.

  4. Ellen Wadey Says:

    I worry that the public/private funding dichotomy that the Nonprofiteer has proposed will ultimately come around to bite the public in the proverbial back row. There are so few sources of funding for individual artists — 3Arts funds five artists annually (and are seen as trailblazers for doing that), the Guggenheim generally anoints the already anointed, and the Rosenwald fund is no more — that to advocate that artists developing new work be funded only from private sources is like saying, “We’ve already got enough art, we don’t need any more. Let’s just stick with the golden oldies and spread them around more.” So then as an art consumer, I get the broad choices of a hundred different productions of A Christmas Carol at the holidays — or the Nutcracker if I want to venture into dance — and the canon of literature and art and music can remain dominantly populated by dead white guys — though, of course, I can always go see Wicked in every major city in the U.S. And, if artists are left to scare up their own funding, we can count on the next wave added to the various canons to also be dead white guys because historically they have all the connections.

    I get fatigued that the discussion of art can’t seem to get beyond the debate of its value. I understand that people need jobs and homes and good health care. I wouldn’t lobby against supporting any of those causes. And they are substantially more funded than the arts. When we talk about whether the arts should get public funding, it should be put in the perspective that funding for the arts in Illinois is at what $1 per person? We’re talking about less than the cost of a Diet Coke. And, only a portion of that is given to supporting artists developing new work. Should we really be debating that that’s too much public funding?

    • Nonprofiteer Says:

      The debate isn’t over the amount of funding, it’s about the source and its use. Nor is anyone arguing that there’s already enough art, or that art doesn’t have value. But democracies are institutions that run on consensus, while the creation of art depends on individual whim/eccentricity/independence. If democracies are going to fund the arts they have to fund the consensus, that is, art which has already stood the test of time. New art–which, after all, might turn out to be crap–needs to find its funding elsewhere. Generous private patronage has funded the development of every art form throughout history; I hardly think–unless we persuade private donors that the government’s already taking care of it!–that a society as prosperous as ours will be the first to break that particular historical chain.

  5. A Common Misconception | Articles About Everything Says:

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  6. Jennifer Hill Says:

    In her proposed budget for 2010, Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm has zeroed out funding for operational grants for the state arts agency. The question of whether there is a consensus on the value of arts is being asked again. When it was Republican Governor John Engler who proposed ending funding, he was convinced that state revenues for the arts brought significant opportunity. The argument now is about jobs and retaining talent – do you want to live in a community where there the local theater, music, dance and visual arts have to rely on patronage?

    • Nonprofiteer Says:

      We’ve ALWAYS lived in communities where local theater, music, dance and visual arts have to rely on [private] patronage–at no time has NEA (or state or local) funding done more than offer a seal of approval and a pittance. But I wasn’t advocating zeroing out state arts agencies; I was advocating spending their money on exhibition, performance and education in the arts rather than on subsidies to individual artists. Perhaps Governor Granholm will restore arts funding when she gets enough money from the Feds to pay the state’s Medicaid bills.

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  9. perplexed Says:

    Interesting conversation. As a private-sector business supporting regional artists, I find a new and concerning encroachment – public funded arts organizations moving into private sector and in affect, competing against companies like mine. For example, “public art” agencies used to focus on visual arts in public buildings and open spaces only. Now to generate revenue, they are providing these services to private sector developers. In essense, they are becoming corporate art consultants. That is a for-profit service my firm provides. Yet, I can’t compete against a public funded agencies whose overhead is covered by tax payer dollars.

    Is it possible that public funding for the arts will eventually put for-profit out of business? Is this what we want to see happen – that art becomes a charity only?

    I think that discussing why we fund the arts and creating guidelines as the author of this site has recommended is a good idea:
    “Let the public fund what benefits the public, and let private wealth make possible acts of private creation.”

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