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It's Not Arts Funding That's the Problem, It's the Lack of an Arts Policy


by Jerome Weeks 7 Jul 2009

Michael Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center, makes the point in a column for the Huffington Post, that there are nine different federal agencies that support art projects: the NEA, the NEH, the Institute for Museum and Library Services, plus the Departments of Commerce, Education, State, Agriculture, Defense, and Transportation. And none of these coordinate […]

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Michael Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center, makes the point in a column for the Huffington Post, that there are nine different federal agencies that support art projects: the NEA, the NEH, the Institute for Museum and Library Services, plus the Departments of Commerce, Education, State, Agriculture, Defense, and Transportation.

And none of these coordinate with the others. To a degree, Kaiser echoes what Baylor prof David Smith argues in his book, Money for Art: It’d help — in deciding what art gets funded and by how much — if we first decided what federal arts funding is for. That way, we could all get behind the program (or not) and see the money more effectively targeted:

The problem is not that federal funding for the arts is unwarranted; the problem is that we need to be assured, as citizens, that we are getting the most value for our money. What is needed is a coordinated approach to arts grants to ensure that the arts programming supported by federal funds truly serves our national interest.

But how can we accomplish this? How can we coordinate the efforts of so many federal agencies? There has been discussion of the need for a Ministry of Culture in the United States. I am concerned that the formation of such an entity would cost too much and put too little money in the hands of the grassroots arts organizations which truly do the most important arts work in this nation and rarely get the spotlight. (Why do we always use arts celebrities to lobby for government support? Doesn’t anyone realize that the American people do not believe their tax dollars should support the work of the most famous and richest performers?)

[Not to dismiss Kaiser’s point but to explain what seems to me the thinking behind the tactic: Arts supporters trot out the stars because, although they may not win over the average American, they wake up Congressional committee members who like to hobnob with the celebrated and beautiful. It’s one of the few perks that arts lobbyists can offer politicians — instead of barrels of raw cash. The stars also draw attention to arts issues from Washington’s political journalists who otherwise couldn’t care unless some art work is causing a scandal.]

Instead, we need someone in the administration, perhaps the new Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts [that would be Rocco Landesman], to provide leadership and coordination to ensure that all grants-making agencies are working in a common direction and that the money expended creates an arts ecology that benefits all Americans. We need policies in at least three key areas: sustaining American arts organizations (both large and small), arts education, and cultural diplomacy.

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  • Bill Marvel

    I am wondering what “getting the most value for our money” in the arts can possibly mean. And I get very nervous when folks start talking about an “arts policy.” In general, the bureaucratization of the arts has not given us “better’ art, and only in limited circumstances has it made art available to a larger audience.

    Perhaps the kindest thing the government could do for the arts is to rigorously censor them, close down theaters, burn a few books. Like religion, art seems to thrive under such circumstances.

  • In my experience, arts policy is not only an enigma on a national level, but on the local level as well. Collaboration across organizations is more often engender when an outside agenda (e.g. economic development) decides to use the arts as a means to an end. Unfortunately, there has not been much success in getting artists and arts organizational leaders together to define a common agenda.

    I think the fear that an “arts policy” constricts creativity is overrated. While we have the beginnings of an administration and congressional leadership friendly to the arts, we should be making some long-term plans to sustain the work that is happening on a local level. We are still following a national arts policy that was set in the 1960s.

  • art stuff has been sorta complicated, because we can’t start thinking about a full arts policy package at the deffense of money… specially when we don’t have yet a good plan to spend this money.

  • “The problem is not that federal funding for the arts is unwarranted; the problem is that we need to be assured, as citizens, that we are getting the most value for our money.” totally agree, with the current break down… art will not fix anything in the society respect poverty or employs.