The politics of art. That isn’t my field, and yet it is. I listened to the back and forth about arts funding during the Stimulus Bill discussions with mixed emotions. Sometimes the arguments rang true, sometimes they didn’t.
The fact is that OF COURSE we need to fund and support the arts. Those who think otherwise are living in a state of disconnectedness. But for me the operative question is how do you do it? What does “supporting the arts” really mean? Whether your nut is $50 million or $500 million, how do you decide where best to invest? And in this difficult economic environment, what would be the most stimulative approach? And how do you deal with that nasty problem of elitism, perceived and/or real?
Greg Sandow, an arts writer I follow, wrote the following for the Wall Street Journal. I don’t necessarily agree with all of his claims, but I found his point of view provocative and worthwhile. See what you think.
People in the arts had a triumph.
They got culture money into the stimulus bill — but not without a fight. The House, in its version of the bill, gave $50 million to the National Endowment for the Arts, increasing its budget by more than the third. Then the Senate took that out. Arts advocates mobilized, made phone calls, asked supporters to make some noise. And lo! The final version of the bill restored the funds.
Arts advocates, from Robert Redford to the president of New York’s Lincoln Center, are celebrating now. But I wonder, in a still, small voice, if this is really such a victory.
For one thing, in the larger scope of things, it’s not much money. Fifty million dollars, in a hastily assembled $800 billion stimulus, is just a bubble on a wave. It’s a rounding error, a random fluctuation. It doesn’t mean that arts support runs deep and strong. The battle for the arts has been going on for decades, and in my view — as a person in the arts myself — the arguments we make aren’t nearly strong enough
Take the economic argument. That took center stage in the Battle for the Stimulus. The arts, we like to say, create jobs and bolster the economy. That’s prominently argued on the Web site of Americans for the Arts, an advocacy group. The nonprofit arts, the site insists, generate $166 billion in economic activity each year, and offer the equivalent of full-time employment to 5.7 million souls.
But does this mean — as Rep. Louise M. Slaughter (D., N.Y.) told the New York Times, after victory was won — that “if we’re trying to stimulate the economy, and get money into the Treasury, nothing does that better than art”? Well, hardly. Let’s not get carried away. Not even Americans for the Arts suggests such a thing.
And unless you go all the way with Rep. Slaughter, the economic argument for arts support has a hole in it. Other things have economic impact, too. Why choose the arts? All of Michigan is suffering because the auto industry collapsed.
Arts advocates also love to say that arts generate indirect spending and employment. In that same Times article, Kate D. Levin, cultural affairs commissioner of New York City, said that “even the smallest organization can record the fact that the parking lot down the street and the dry cleaner around the corner and the restaurant nearby all do better when the organization is functioning.” But that’s true of any business. In New York, it’s virulently true for Wall Street, whose sickness hurts all sorts of New York enterprises, from real estate to small businesses in the financial district. (Even culture!) This, in fact, became an argument in favor of those hated Wall Street bonuses. Without them, New York’s economy is reeling.
But then the choices that our nation has to make go even further. The San Francisco city government is facing a $576 million budget deficit. Cuts have been proposed, some involving public health. For hours at a meeting of the city’s Board of Supervisors, there were protests from advocates for homeless people, medical clinics that serve the poor, and many other worthy groups.
So somebody proposed an alternative — cut funding for the symphony and ballet. The matter hasn’t been resolved, but would you like to be the opera representative, arguing to keep your funds, with people from endangered clinics in the room?
And what if those clinic workers and others like them say the arts have a lot of money, and that they largely serve an upscale audience? Arts advocates hate that kind of talk. It’s not correct, they say. It’s anti-arts, anti-intellectual.
But let’s not underestimate how persistent those perceptions are, especially when reality at least partly seems to back them up. In New York, the Metropolitan Opera sells some of its tickets for as much as $375 each and has board members who make million-dollar gifts (or, in one case, a $25 million gift — an overflowing cornucopia). In 2006, the most recent year for which numbers are available, the New York Philharmonic paid $2.8 million to its music director and $864,000 to its CEO.
The Met, of course, has huge expenses, as does the Philharmonic. Both can say they’re paying what the market charges for the talent that they need. And the Met, on top of that, is in financial trouble. But will everyday Americans jump up and down for joy if the Met gets extra funds while public health is cut?
The arts are going to need a better strategy. And in the end it’s going to have to come from art itself, from the benefits art brings, in a world where popular culture — which has gotten smart and serious — also helps bring depth and meaning to our lives.
That’s the kicker: the popular culture part. Once we figure that out, we can leave our shaky arguments behind and really try to prove we matter.