By Isaac Butler
One of the surprising (and pleasant) things that's happened in between writing Part II and now is that both Kevin Drum and Matt Yglesias have responded to this series. They both raise really interesting points that I'm going to try to address here. I'm concerned about this conversation going off in like ten thousand directions now, but we'll see.
Before we begin, though, I just want to say that in reading through Kevin and Matt's comments, I see that there is a widespread misunderstanding about how the NEA works (and what it has achieved). You see a lot of "name one great work of art between 1965 and 2000 that the NEA is responsible for," when historically very little of the NEA's money has gone to fund individual artists or projects (and now they are forbidden to do so by law) and you see a lot of mention of "government bureaucrats," &c. So, although this post is already topping out at over 2K words long, let me just stat real quick with...
HOW THE NEA WORKS
(1) NEA grants are administered through partnerships with other organizations, many of whom are state arts agencies. In his post, Matt asks why we need federal arts subsidies. One of the reasons is so that we can have local, city and state arts councils to begin with. 40% of the NEA's money goes into that pot. I'm sure there could be more efficient ways to do this, but it's worth saying that it's not that we face an either/or choice when it comes to federalism and arts funding.
(2) NEA grants are largely given out in the form of matching funds and challenge grants. This is important for two reasons. First off, it means that the organization that receives the grant has to have community support (or is attractive to the market, if you want to think about it that way). Second, it also means that you get a lot of arts funding bang for your NEA buck because it multiplies on itself and snowballs.
(3) The grants given out by the NEA are not decided upon by a bunch of General Schedule 10 functionaries better suited to an Eastern European satire of Soviet bureaucracy. Rather, grants go through two stages where they are evaluated by people in the arts (not government employees) for merit and one final stage where they are decided upon by the NEA Chair, who is a government employee, but tends to either be an artist or come from a life of experience in the arts. In particular, round II involves the National Council On The Arts. You can read all about them here. The only government employees on the council are the non-voting members of Congress.
It's easy to get spooked out by the specter of the government determining what art you should like. This view is an inaccurate picture of the NEA. The NEA is our way as a society of pooling resources (in the form of taxes) in order to support the arts (for reasons I'll get into below) and entrusting that money with a group of experts with decades of experience in the field.
GOVERNMENT ARTS SUBSIDY WORKS
It's also worth saying that the NEA/nonprofit system of subsidies has been wildly successful over the past few decades, while in terms of per capita spending having far less money than its counterparts in other countries. It helped build and sustain both the regional theater movement and the orchestra movement in the United State. It gave the seed money to start the American Film Institute, the Vietnam Memorial design competition, the Sundance Institute and the Spoleto Festival.
If you want to be truly impressed by what the NEA has done, go ahead and load up this PDF and jump to page 171. There you'll find a series of essays, one about every major American art form the NEA has impacted.
One of the NEA's key functions historically has been creating and giving seed money for these kinds of projects. Many of them have gone on to be quite successful, some of them haven't, some of them aren't in business anymore. Having the government be that first major funding risk-taker is important for getting these projects off the ground. I personally worry a little less about current projects running aground without the NEA than I do about tomorrow's project that never reaches its audience because there isn't that first bold yes.
In the interest of complete honesty, yes there are areas where capacity building has been too successful. I am not sure we need 1800 symphony orchestras in this country, and there are many areas where the supply of a particular form of art outstrips the need for that art. But this is not an argument against government arts subsidies (in either the NEA or tax break form). Rather, this is an argument for taking honest stock of where we are and figuring out what areas (both in terms of geography and genre) could use more focus on demand and what could use more capacity. Luckily, it appears that the Chairman of the NEA wants to do exactly that.
ARTS JOBS ARE JOBS, ARTS MONEY IS MONEY
Taking those aforementioned 1800 orchestras for a moment, in their 2003-2004 season, they provided work for 76,000 musicians. As one op-ed writer put it, arts jobs are jobs. Government arts subsidies helps create jobs for people, just as arts events (largely, but not entirely put on by nonprofits) bring all sorts of money into communities ($103 billion annually!) when people go to participate in the arts.
For example, in San Francisco (a city I happen to have the numbers on), the non-profit Arts and Culture sector accounts for $1.03 Billion in expenditures. Around $460 million of that is generated by arts organizations themselves, while $570 million of it comes from audiences.
The non-profit arts/culture industry in San Francisco employs 27,837 full time employees, generating a total household income of $548 million. (UPDATE: This figure above needs to be clarified, if you see comment below from Marissa. This sentence should read: "the San Francisco arts community contributes to the creation and support of the equivalent of 27,837 full-time jobs, generating $548 million in household income and delivering $93.1 million in local and state government revenue." which comes from an article on this issue in the San Francisco Examiner.)
Nationally, arts patrons spend about $27.79 per person per arts event they attend, not including transportation, lodging and the price of the event itself. Non-local attendees spend twice as much as local ones ($40.19 to $19.53). Arts Orgs around the nation generate $166 billion dollars in spending, $103 billion of which is from the audiences not the arts orgs. (Much of this information is available at the Americans for the Arts website, if anyone is interested in digging deeper).
Even if you disagree with everything I'm about to say, I think it's worth pausing here and thinking about these numbers. We're talking about government money being spent fairly efficiently in partnership with private money to create large numbers of jobs and lots of economic activity. Even if you don't really care about the kinds of projects it funds or why, we should care about the money it generates and the jobs it creates.
ART, ENTERTAINMENT AND THE COMMUNITY
Now, I want to discuss Kevin's post in response to mine for a moment, because it demonstrates a clear difference in the way he and I view the arts. Kevin espouses what's loosely labeled the "arts and entertainment" view of art:
Now, I, Kevin Drum, happen to like classical music but not jazz. I like film but don't really get much of a kick out of theater. I love novels but have never developed an appreciation of poetry. Etc. etc. If it turned out that my tastes were broadly shared, would that mean there's a market breakdown in jazz, theater, and poetry?... If serious modern composers produce music that the public has to be bribed to listen to (usually with a post-intermission performance of a popular old warhorse), does that mean there's a breakdown in the market for serious modern music? Or does it mean that serious modern composers ought to rethink the kind of music they write? How do you know?... I view the decline of live theater with equanimity because I think that modern film, video, and multimedia performances are better than live theater on virtually every level. Obviously Isaac disagrees, and that's fine. The question is, why should the federal government adjudicate our disagreement?
Basically, by this view, art and its various mediums and subgenres is a category of entertainment, just like any category of entertainment. By this point of view, most of us in the arts are essentially laboring in the creation of luxury goods and asking the federal government to help us by giving us enough money that we can price our luxury goods cheap enough to get people to buy them.
I have a lot of sympathy and understanding for this worldview. A lot of people I know agree with it. And I think we artists bear an enormous amount of responsibility for this worldview through our lack of community engagement and sense of entitlement, through our reducing of everything we do to marketing language and our using of the language and logic of the market to pervert our principles.
This is why 99 and I get so pissed at what we see as the betrayals of the foundational ideas of the non-profit system because ultimately, those betrayals are contributing to a world in which art is simply something made for and by upper middle class people who have conned the government into giving them a handout to do it. Guy is right that part of answering the concerns of natural allies like Kevin should involve reform on our part.
I don't think the federal government is adjudicating our disagreement, actually. In order to do that, it would need to keep Kevin from seeing movies while allowing me to see theatre. Instead, it's taking a broad view of what our culture needs in terms of the arts and providing it at very, very low cost to us ($164 million! less than the cost of Avatar!) while creating and sustaining jobs and bringing huge amounts of economic activity to communities all over the country.
This is because (if I may get ephemeral for a moment here) the arts aren't just about entertainment. A society's cultural output is the way it speaks with itself and the broader world, with history and to the future. Given the high barriers of access to and the very small number of stories tellable by more market driven art forms like film and television, having other channels where voices can participate in that conversation is vital. Investing as a society in something ephermal, non-rational, something that can't be easily commodified is important to our humanity.
Additionally, different art forms work in different ways, communicate through different means and have different effects. I love the movies. I love going to them and seeing them and being swept away by them. But they are a fundamentally different experience from going to see a live show in which social engagement and the use of one's imagination are paramount. And both of these could be more different from photography, and photography is something entirely different from painting, or jazz. More kinds of voices means a more complex conversation, a deeper song for us to sing.
Finally, arts have an impact on communities that goes beyond both economics and individual enjoyment. We have a vision in this country that "the arts" is a big gala at the Met where everyone's wearing scarves and they all look exactly the same. And while the Met is of course part of the arts, the arts are also The Bronx Academy Of Arts and Dance, a queer-friendly performance and visual arts space in the South Bronx. It's the Guthrie here in Minneapolis, yes, but it's also Pillsbury House, a community center run by the theater it encloses.
Ultimately, I don't think the arts are about the individual benefit of my being able to see theater and not pay an arm and a leg for it, or of there still being new jazz music composed. The entertainment/consumer view of art is certainly part of the picture, but the larger one, the more vital to our society and therefore more worth funding is the way arts help make communities unique, inspire civic pride, reach underserved populations and create community wide participation. Eliminating government funding for the arts makes all of this harder to achieve.
PS: Guy Yedwab has been blogging up a storm on this issue. Tons of good thoughts to be found there.