Awhile back Scott mentioned that, when you adjust the NEA's current budget for inflation, it is dwarfed by its budget during the Regan era. I was interested enough in this idea to track down the NEA's budget throughout its history, convert it into 2008 dollars (via the Inflation Calculator) and then teach myself Power Point in order to make this chart that I now present to you (click on the chart to enlarge):
If you want to check the data I used, it's here: Download nea_budget_spreadsheet.xls
The budget numbers are taken from the NEA's website (up through 2000) and from its Wikipedia entry (for 2004 and 2008).
So what do we find? 1979 was the NEA's highest budget in terms of 2008 dollars, at a whopping $470.56 million dollars. I think that one of the ways we could start building a case for an increase in Government Arts Funding could use this number.
Something just occured to me while researching and doing this. Many of the arguments about State Arts Funding center around whether or not the Arts are a worthwhile thing and whether or not the Government should be funding them. This, I'm coming to think, is a mistake. As a society we already agree that the arts are good and the Government should fund them. How do I know this? Because the Government funds the arts. If you just look at the NEA's website and the various PDFs that it supplies, what you will find is a broad bipartisan consensus (at least rhetorically) that funding the arts is a good thing for the Government to do.
What we should instead be arguing is that the Government isn't doing it well enough. This, I think is a more powerful argument in terms of framing, because it assumes that Goverment Subsidy of the Arts is a good thing, which is the same assumption the US Government's budget makes. Now, the US Government might not assume that it is as good a thing as, say, the Danes or the Finns or whatever, but we still already agree. Why are we trying to sell people something we've already sold them? (my guess, the trauma of that giant mid-1990s dip you see when the Republicans took back Congress).
So here is the two pronged argument I would like to make:
A) The government is not funding the arts enough. Is art cheaper to make than it was in 1979? No. Is the dollar worth more than it was in 1979? No. Therefore, we propose that the budget of the NEA be adjusted to reflect both of these changes, by raising it back to 1979 levels, adjusted for inflation.
B) The government is not funding the arts as well as it could. The NEA should (a) be allowed once again to give a small percentage of its grants to individual artists (it has been forbidden to do so since the NEA-4), (b) consider a wider range of artists including early and early-mid career artists
To accomplish this, we return to something I've written about on the blog before but would like to officially name: The Lifeblood Initiative. New work is the lifeblood of an art form. The NEA should set aside a portion of the increase in funding proposed in (A) to help fund new work across art forms. Each program would need to be tailor made for each art form. For me, a theatre program would involve paying a number of writers an annual fulltime salary and giving them benefits, either using the Government Research Scientist model or funding resident playwrights at nonprofits. This would be coupled with a dedicated grant program that was only available for productions costs of full productions of new plays. Both programs would, perhaps, have limited eligibility to make sure that recipients of the money come from a wide variety of experience levels, including early career writers.
That's my big idea for the day.UPDATE just did some more number crunching. If you take the average of all of the budgets in 2008, the NEA's budget today is still lower. The average is $236.8 million dollars, which is almost $100 million more than today. Even returning to just-pre-1996 levels (restoring all the money the Gingrinch Congress cut and then adjusting for inflation) would cause the NEA's budget to rise to $224 million.