Should Art Be Publicly Funded?

We’d like to thank Audible for supporting
PBS. The views discussed in this episode do not
necessarily reflect the views of PBS or its member stations. All thoughts and opinions presented here are
from me – Sarah Green. Also, full disclosure – PBS has received funding
from the NEH and NEA. However, neither PBS Digital Studios nor Art
Assignment funding has come from these organizations to date. You’ve heard it before. My tax dollars are paying for what now? It’s said about a wide range of public programs,
but you’ve probably heard it at least once about art. It may have been photographs of unclothed
men. Graphic performance art. An image of a crucifix submerged in urine. You probably haven’t heard complaints about
art therapy for veterans, the honoring of jazz legends, after school theater programs
in underserved communities, mural projects on the Cheyenne River Lakota Reservation in
South Dakota, or the show that wouldn’t have traveled to your town otherwise. In the United States, the issue of whether
art should be publicly funded tends to come up only when there’s a controversy, or when
a new budget proposal is released. Defenders tend to focus on the relatively
miniscule amount of spending it takes to run these programs in the US. And it’s true, in 2018 funding the National
Endowment for the Arts constituted .004 percent of the federal budget. But I’d like to take a look at what this
kind of funding actually accomplishes, how other countries support the arts, and how
this kind of spending affects your life in ways you may not be aware of. In 1965, US President Lyndon Johnson signed
a Congressional act that declares that the arts and the humanities: “…belong to all
the people of the United States,” and that they “reflect the high place accorded by
the American people to the nation’s rich cultural heritage and to the fostering of mutual respect
for the diverse beliefs and values of all persons and groups.” The act established the National Endowments
for the Arts and for the Humanities as independent agencies of the federal government, both of
which have been in operation since, despite routine threats to defund them. Since its inception, the NEA has awarded more
than 145,000 grants, totaling more than $5 billion dollars, either directly, through
state and regional agencies, or in partnership with other organizations. Its first grant went to the American Ballet
Theatre, and it has since contributed to a huge range of exhibitions, performances, residencies,
festivals, competitions, radio programs and podcasts, and education initiatives all over
the country. Yes, even in Guam. Its mission is “to strengthen the creative
capacity of our communities by providing all Americans with diverse opportunities for arts
participation.” And they take this charge seriously. Here’s a map that shows you how widely NEA
grants were distributed in a given year, reaching every single US Congressional District. Public funding for the arts in the US has
given many prized cultural leaders their start. NEA grants funded the original production
of The Great White Hope in 1967, starring young actors James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander. Alice Walker received the NEA discovery award
in 1970. The NEA was a partner in the creation of the
Vietnam Veterans Memorial. And it has engaged in numerous efforts to
preserve history, while also encouraging growth and innovation in the arts. It has brought treasures to the US from all
over the world. And likewise helped bring the work of American
artists to the rest of the world. Now of course the United States did not invent
this idea. England created the Committee for Encouragement
of Music and the Arts in 1940, which morphed over time into the Arts Council England that
exists today. A Royal Charter from 1946 established its
aim to “develop and improve the knowledge, understanding and practice of the arts”
and “increase accessibility of the arts to the public in England.” It also aims to provide arts education and
maintain and operate museums and libraries. The Arts Council England will distribute more
than 577 million pounds–or 750 million dollars–this year, using a combination of funding from
the government and the National Lottery. The French Ministry of Culture was established
in 1959, but you can certainly trace its lineage of arts funding back much further than that. Before it was a democracy or republic, France
supported the arts through its monarchy, of course. Louis XIV was an unparalleled patron of the
arts. And before that was François I, who supported
a number of artists and brought Leonardo da Vinci to his royal court during the Italian
Renaissance. Art has long been a way for rulers to establish
their legitimacy and demonstrate their power. As far back as 4000 years ago, Gudea, the
ruler of Lagash in Mesopotamia, commissioned a series of statues that served as a kind
of stand in for himself, displayed in temples to demonstrate his piety to the gods, as well
as his wealth and power to everyone who visited. And art has long been a way for nations to
visualize and solidify their common ideals, venerating shared symbols, occupying communal
spaces, understanding their histories, and imagining their futures. But back to France. Current French president Emmanuel Macron followed
up on a campaign promise to improve youth access to the arts, by working with the Ministry
of Culture to release a mobile app called Culture Pass. Described by The Guardian as “like Tinder
for the arts,” it shows you cultural offerings in your area, and makes it easy to get the
details, reserve tickets, and so forth. And if it’s the year of your 18th birthday,
it comes preloaded with 500 euros of “culture credit” to spend. It’s one of many programs supported by the
Ministry of Culture, whose funding budget for this year is a whopping of 3.63 billion
euros, the equivalent of more than 4 billion dollars. The German Cultural Council, founded in 1981,
oversees 258 federal cultural associations, and in 2018 announced a large increase in
budget to nearly $2 billion overall. This includes the kind of arts funding you
might expect, as well as kinds you maybe wouldn’t, like an annual computer game prize. Germany also makes available a social insurance
system for self-employed artists, paying for about half of their health insurance and pension
fees. Mexico has had a program since 1957 that gives
artists the opportunity to pay their federal income taxes with their own art, as long as
it meets quality standards decided by a committee of artists and curators. These artworks become part of a national collection,
some of which is on permanent display in Mexico City, and some of which is loaned to public
institutions across the country and around the world. There are many different models for arts councils
and ministries of culture around the world, that allocate funding that ranges from very
modest to, well, France. The NEA’s appropriation for 2018 came to
$152.8 million dollars, or around 3% of France’s arts budget. The bulk of arts funding in the US comes from
the private sector, and NEA grants are usually complements to that private funding, many
of the gant even requiring that recipients match the amount awarded with other contributions. But we also know that NEA funding tends to
attract that private support, with every $1 of NEA funding in 2016, leveraging $9 in outside
funding. This functions similarly in other parts of
the world, where state funding for the arts is seen as the principal driver of philanthropic
support. For example, 80% of the funding for that French
Culture Pass app came from the private sector and from partnerships with tech companies. Many argue that if federal support is withdrawn,
then private funders will sweep in to the rescue. However, we know that these philanthropists
tend to follow the leadership of federal arts agencies. And, unsurprisingly, when public support to
a given institution declines, often does that of the private sector. Furthermore, the wealthiest Americans live
in the biggest cities, and their philanthropic efforts predominantly go to the arts institutions
near where they live. So you can see public funding efforts as helping
to channel philanthropy out of say, the Capitol of Panem, and toward the cultivation and growth
of culture in, say District 12. 40% of NEA-supported activities take place
in high-poverty neighborhoods. If public funding for the arts goes away,
rich people will still have access to art. It’s just going to be a lot harder for everyone
else. MoMA would continue to be MoMA, but without
public funding, how do we ensure that voices are represented other than those of the rich,
or those anointed by the rich? A critical function of public funding of the
arts is the spotlight it shines on lesser-heard and minority voices, as well as its assistance
in the preservation of indigenous cultures. For instance, a portion of the Australia Council
for the Arts’s funding is focused specifically on opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Islander artists. We used to think that the impact of the arts
was something too difficult to quantify. How, after all, can you put numbers behind
something as nebulous as inspiration? But there is a way. And the NEA works hard to evaluate the impact
of their efforts, finding that: Disadvantaged 8-12th graders who received arts education
were 3x more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than those who lacked those experiences And also that at-risk young people who have
access to the arts are more likely to have higher STEM scores, set higher career goals,
and volunteer more. They’ve also discovered that art education
is associated with better problem solving, creative thinking, and civic engagement. Data released in 2018 by the NEA and the U.S.
Bureau of Economic Analysis revealed that 4.9 million Americans work in the arts and
cultural industries, with earnings of more than $370 billion. It also showed us that the arts contribute
more than $760 billion dollars to the U.S. economy. When you think about the $152.8 million appropriated
to the NEA last year, that spending suddenly doesn’t seem so wasteful, or tangential
to other government concerns, like economic stability and growth. Also, the American rich are disproportionately
male and white, and so are those who benefit from the art market. If we leave our cultural future in the hands
of the wealthy, we’ll no doubt have a cultural future shaped and determined by their interests. Art created by market forces ultimately tends
to serve those forces, and not the public. The market values of artworks made by women,
people of color, and minorities are improving, but don’t come close to representing the
diversity of the American people. Do we really believe that “the arts and
the humanities belong to all the people of the United States”? And if so, how much is it worth to try to
keep it that way? There’s this quote floating around about
Winston Churchill’s response to the proposed cutting of arts funding in the UK during the
second world war. Supposedly he said: “Then what are we fighting
for?” It’s a wonderful sentiment, although like
many of the quotes attributed to Churchill, it doesn’t look like he ever said it. But there’s something to it, regardless. To the idea that, at any given time, we’re
not just fighting for safety and security. We’re fighting for the things that make
life worth living. And sometimes we don’t know what those things
are until an artist shows us. Once we’ve seen it, we know that the world
is so much better for having had it, whether it’s The Color Purple, the only arts organization
in your community, Hamilton, or yes even images that might offend you. The exhibitions, performances, workshops,
and events that are supported by government funds, are places and moments where we come
together to think about what, as a community, we value and what we don’t. Not where we come together as consumers, although
you can usually exit through the gift shop, but where we intersect as thinking, feeling,
sensing beings, with contrasting understandings of history, beliefs in our present, and hopes
for our future. We don’t all agree on the appropriate scope
of our government. But most of us do agree that art is a key
part of the education of our children. When does that fall away? When do the arts stop being a critical part
of our lives, and start belonging only to the privileged? If you’d like to learn more about the history
of how the US government got into the game of funding art, you should check out my friend
Danielle Bainbridge’s excellent video on the topic over at her channel Origin of Everything. We’d like to thank Audible for supporting PBS. Audible’s selection of audiobooks includes
Audible Originals, audio titles created by storytellers from around the literary world. For example, The Genius Dialogues, where host
Bob Garfield sits down with MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” fellows, including artist
Jorge Pardo, to learn about what events shaped their life, and what they imagine our shared
future looks like. Visit OR text artassignment
to 500 500 to learn more. Members own their books and can access them
anytime. Thanks for all of our patrons for supporting
The Assignment, especially our grandmaster of the arts Vincent Apa.


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