The National Endowment for the Arts has a complex history. Or at least it must have a complex history, for when you do a search for “NEA history” (after you sort past the entries that describe the National Educational Association), you are presented with the NEA.GOV website, at which there is a 314-page document entitled, “National Endowment for the Arts: A History – 1965-2008.”
314 pages. That’s a lot of information and a lot of impact for an agency that is responsible for less than 1 percent of all the arts funding in the US. It’s a ton of information for an agency whose budget comprises less than four thousandths of a percent of the national budget. To be precise, the current budget is 0.00369 of one percent of this year’s US budget. That means that for every thousand dollars of taxes paid, less than 4 cents goes to the NEA.
According to a report, military marching bands, which are necessary, are estimated to receive more than $50,000,000 more this year in the current budget than all the arts groups funded by the NEA. Nice recruitment tool. It shows every high school clarinetist, trombonist, and sousaphone player that they have the capacity to be all they can be.
The NEA, according to itself -- http://www.nea.gov/pub/nea-history-1965-2008.pdf -- is unique among federal agencies. “Created by the Congress of the United States and President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965, the NEA was not intended to solve a problem, but rather to embody a hope. The NEA was established to nurture American creativity, to elevate the nation’s culture, and to sustain and preserve the country’s many artistic traditions. The Arts Endowment’s mission was clear—to spread this artistic prosperity throughout the land, from the dense neighborhoods of our largest cities to the vast rural spaces, so that every citizen might enjoy America’s great cultural legacy.”
Willard Mitt Romney has said he will eliminate funding for the NEA, among other agencies. “Some of these things, like those endowment efforts and PBS I very much appreciate and like what they do in many cases, but I just think they have to stand on their own rather than receiving money borrowed from other countries, as our government does on their behalf," Romney said, according to The Hill.
Um, okay. So Willard, you don’t want to borrow money from China to pay for, you know, unnecessary US things. I guess I would understand that, except the amount of money you’re talking about is, as we described earlier, pennies per thousand dollars.
In a Huffington Post article, Travis Korte opines that “even if it's no longer possible to have a bipartisan conversation about arts money, maybe that's for the best….And, as any manufacturing tycoon will tell you, it's more efficient in the long run to invest in means than in ends. Arts advocates sometimes forget that we ought to agree with this: when we talk about culture and heritage, we're talking about future generations and long-term benefits, not immediate profits.…On top of the federal arts budget's inefficiencies and lack of influence, there's the intrinsic trouble of centralizing something people are expected and even encouraged to disagree about.”
It’s an interesting point, and something I’ve heard over the years, even from artists. As someone who ran organizations that received NEA grants, I’m not sure if they served as an advantage or a detriment to the organization. I felt that at the time of funding and still feel it now.
If the arts endowment were eliminated, what would happen? Would the arts in America die? Would the anti-freedom crowd in the GOP claim a victory? If so, then what? Would that embolden them to eliminate funding for military marching bands? And what good would that do?
At some level, I think this is a discussion that happened in Las Vegas when larger casinos decided to eliminate the $2 blackjack tables. They’re a lot of work for not a lot of yield. But they’re also a point of entry for those that have never gambled. And the pennies spent toward the arts in the United States might be determined not to be a central policy position, but as an incentive, to create a point of entry for participation in all the arts.
But why? Why must we have a point of entry? Are we “nurturing American creativity,” as the NEA publication stated, even in the light of the recent “Shakespeare in America” initiative which rewarded exactly zero American playwrights from 2004-2009? What is the purpose of investing America with the arts if America is ambiguous –- if not downright hostile – to the idea?
As we continue our mean-spirited carousel of polarized thought and aversion to compromise, we in the arts community must also remember that we have a job to do that is not complete merely by the creation of art.
We in the arts community often point to other countries and their national support of the arts, and that support is real. For each $0.01 a US taxpayer spends on all the arts in the US, a German taxpayer pays $2.00 for all the arts in Germany. Most of Europe and Asia is similar – the US taxpayer bears the lowest burden toward the arts of any non-third-world country in the world.
But we Americans have had a problem valuing the power of the arts, and it doesn’t take an endowment to quantify value in a capitalistic society. It takes discipline, differentiation, and determination – not to create excellence or relevance, as most arts organizations’ leaders believe. Neither of those attributes is germane to the discussion – they are expected by your community; they are a baseline, not a goal.
No: discipline, differentiation, and determination are needed to create organizations which provide external greater good. The arts in America do not succeed by producing arts in America; they succeed by producing better Americans. And if the NEA were eliminated and the discussion made moot, would we in the arts community be in a better position to freely produce better people? Just asking.
Posted by Alan Harrison. Posted In : Cuts vs Revenue