Like all my museum colleagues, I support funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Institute for Museum and Library Services. Unlike many, though, I think they need to change.
I went to a lecture the other day, and the speaker, a distinguished scholar, prefaced her talk with an appeal to write my congressman in support of these agencies. If they were abolished, she warned, “no more art” would result. She should stick to her art-history day job, since prophecy is clearly not her strength. The not-for-profit arts and humanities sector nationwide spent $17.3 billion last year, and this doesn’t include college and university spending, the art market, and corporate spending on for-profit arts. Federal support is less than .4 percent of this amount.
The American model for supporting the arts is different from the European model. Private giving supports culture here; in Europe, it’s mostly government-funded. I’m not suggesting federal culture spending can’t make a big difference. I’m suggesting that this money, as we spend it now, usually doesn’t.
So let’s stop the atrocity propaganda. Without these agencies, culture will continue to thrive. I was the director of the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Mass., for ten years. Phillips Academy, my parent institution, did not take federal money. We certainly could have gotten federal grants for many of our great shows, but instead we made them happen through fundraising. Still, without a federal role, some precious opportunities would be lost forever.
It’s been a long time since basic questions were put to these agencies. Questions like: “What compelling interest can federal money for the arts serve?” Or: “What can federal money do that private philanthropy won’t?” Or: “Can more focus produce big results?”
Right now, these agencies are aggressively unfocused. Together they give thousands of grants, most of them small. Self-preservation might lead to spreading money among many congressional districts, but to me, it suggests that lots of money is piddled away. Small grants to individual research projects, artists, exhibitions, and theater or music productions are nice, yet almost all these things would happen anyway without federal help. Federal funding often ends up simply increasing an institution’s general budget. It doesn’t move the nation’s cultural needle.
I would leave small grants to the state arts and humanities agencies. They can target money to projects whose quality, impact, and timeliness they understand best. Currently, in the case of the NEA and the NEH, 40 percent of their funds goes directly to state arts agencies. This is money well spent; it’s closer to the people.
How much federal money actually hits the checking accounts of artists, scholars, and arts institutions? I suspect lots of it goes to staff salaries, conferences, staff travel, and think-tank-style reports. The staffs are committed and conscientious, but they’re also big. There’s an enormous vetting and compliance bureaucracy built into these agencies, and they often do duplicative work.
Do we give preference to projects that are both worthy and needy? The NEH gives money to the Getty Museum. With a $5 billion endowment, the Getty is not needy, as worthy as it is. Some means-testing might be a good idea. I’d like to see bigger grants for transformative goals to arts organizations that genuinely struggle to pay the bills. Many parts of the country have cultural creativity and ambition, but their donor bases aren’t as big as Boston, New York, or Chicago. Why don’t we give these less advantaged places priority?
If we’re spending money on culture, here are some more big agenda items. Congress and President Trump seem likely to spend $1 trillion on new infrastructure. Arts infrastructure belongs in the mix. Many arts venues are burdened by inadequate storage, lack of climate control or classrooms, inadequate access for the disabled, and stages or lighting that need renovation. These back-of-house challenges are tough to fund because they lack glamour, and donors like glamour. Yet they benefit arts organizations by liberating them from physical limitations and allowing them to do more and do it better.
Another big project is promoting free admission. Federal arts agencies don’t do much to lower the cost of the arts to users. Museums should be free. The Addison was free. Free admission is the quickest and best way to increase accessibility and attendance. Museums resist it, but here’s a secret: Aside from heavily touristed areas, museum admission charges don’t generate much money. They exist primarily to drive museum memberships, which fundraisers see as a first rung for donors. Given the choice between broad, free access and attracting members, museums will invariably pick memberships, which for many users aren’t a financial option. Admission charges thus become a barrier to entry for poor people and for many families.
Federal arts agencies don’t do much to lower the cost of the arts to users. Museums should be free.
A simple change would dramatically promote accessibility: No museum should receive federal indemnity for exhibitions, or federal immunity from seizure for foreign loans, unless it has a robust free-admission policy. Federal indemnity serves museums by insuring loans of paintings with high market values, eliminating the need for expensive commercial insurance. The immunity-from-seizure program protects foreign lenders of art from American ownership lawsuits while their art is in scholarly shows in the United States. These are essential programs for museums today.
Not all museums must be totally free, but recipients of federal money, federal indemnities, and federal immunities should head in this direction. Exhibitions receiving federal help should certainly be free. Museums should offer free admission to residents of the cities or counties that host them. And college and university museums should be free to all; they are part of big, tax-exempt institutions and are often the only things on campus open to the general public.
If museums benefit from federal assistance, they have a corresponding duty to help achieve national goals. Elsewhere I’ve written about the idea of linking these programs and federal cultural spending to a collection-sharing effort. Currently, many big museums, mostly in our major cities on the East and West Coasts, have thousands of great objects in storage that are rarely seen. A national interest would be served by liberating these objects and, where condition and security allow, sending them to museums throughout the country that don’t have such large and impressive permanent collections.
The selection of topics that receive federal funding should be narrowed. Last year the NEH made grants of $50,000 each, not insignificant, to projects on Kurdish nationalism, wine production in Tsarist Russia, and Indians in Brazil. Each of these sounds engaging, but aren’t they really the province of special-interest foundations or individual donors? It makes more sense to focus on American topics — American art, American history, and American theater, dance, and music. It’s the culture of our country, and it’s in our interest to nurture it. There are not a lot of foundations focusing on American art; I should know as a long-time director of a great museum specializing in American art.
Federal agencies should prioritize projects that enhance our understanding of American identity and citizenship. Fewer and fewer people seem to know anything about either. Let’s put the deity of multiculturalism aside; we’re not citizens of the world. If we’re citizens of everywhere, we’re citizens of nowhere, and that’s a false value. A focus on American culture doesn’t have to be exclusive, but it needs to be a priority, since the money comes from American taxpayers.
Our national culture programs are decades old. In some respects, they have become insular, bureaucratic, and sclerotic. The focus I suggest on a few goals of substance needn’t last forever. But the need to address big issues now will keep these agencies in place and relevant.
— Brian T. Allen was the director of the museum division of the New-York Historical Society, the director of the Addison Gallery of American Art, and the curator of American art at the Clark Art Institute. He lives in Arlington, Vt.