How to Fix Federal Arts Funding

After the Fire Architecture (1211 Southwest First Avenue at Madison), ca. 1939, by Minor White. Gelatin silver print. (Courtesy of the Fine Arts Program, Public Buildings Service, U.S. General Services Administration. Commissioned through the New Deal art projects, public domain)
We’re not getting rid of it, so conservatives and libertarians need to focus on making it better.

Last week I wrote about the sludgy amalgam of federal arts programs, focusing on the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities. These programs do some good work and little that’s repugnant. They sprinkle money on too many recipients, which dilutes their effectiveness. They fund lots of things that are going to happen regardless of federal support. Their impact on audiences — giving people a better arts experience — is often negligible because so much money is consumed by back-of-house costs, professional conferences, and big grants to consultants and planning agencies.

They’re not going away, though. Conservatives and libertarians have tried mightily to eliminate them since the early 1990s. This isn’t going to happen. It makes sense for them to make these agencies theirs, or at least make them work better.

The NEA especially gives plenty of money to organizations that are either not needy or in places with deep donor pools. It continues to give a $100,000 general-operations grant, for instance, to the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park series. It’s the NEA theater division’s biggest grant, and it goes to the most famous — and eminently fundable — theater program in America, located in Manhattan. Should that program get a whopping $100,000? Of course not. There are many superb theater programs that struggle to pay the bills and get a fraction of the NEA money.

In 2017, Shakespeare in the Park mounted a production of Julius Caesar in which the title character was costumed to look very much like President Trump. Of course, poor Trumpy Julius gets lots of holes in him via the contemptible Cassius and Brutus and a gang of finger-to-the-wind senators, turning everyone’s Ides of March upside down. Upper West Siders loved it.

What was the point? It wasn’t a serious one. I’ve seen Julius Caesar a dozen times. The parallels are, to put it diplomatically, limited. Trump and Julius Caesar are both earthlings — I guess that’s the biggest thing they have in common. For the people who staged the production, it was part wishful thinking, part cheap shot, and part manipulating an audience’s gullibility. It shows bad judgment that turned the sublime — it’s a fabulous, powerful play — into the burlesque. Why keep supporting the place with your biggest grant?

The NEA and the NEH each have a $155 million budget, but 40 percent of that money goes to state arts agencies on a population-adjusted basis for them to spend at their discretion. My state, Vermont, got about $670,000, and I’m proud, and actually surprised, to say none of the money seems to have gone to anything I would call wacky. Some states supplement what they get from the federal level with state tax dollars, but Vermont doesn’t.

I think that in other states the biggest abuses of money come from direct grants to artists. The NEA hasn’t given direct grants to artists in years, but the states can and do. It’s a bad idea, if only because most art is terrible. Not terrible in the sense of terrifying, though some is strong-men-weeping-and-dogs-baying bad. Most of it is banal, derivative, one-dimensional, or, as Mary Poppins would say, “in short . . . a ghastly mess.” It’s not our age. It has always been thus.

I love artists, but the NEA should require states to support established artist-in-residence programs like Skowhegan School in Maine or the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire. These places have histories, standards, campuses, and expectations all pointing to quality. Of course, you have to believe such a thing as “quality” exists.

The Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) had a $240 million budget last year. President Trump tried to eliminate this, too. It does some very good work on Native American–artifact preservation, which is difficult to fund from private donors. It also supports aquariums, zoos, science museums, and children’s museums in addition to libraries and art museums. Many of its library grants support technology, which isn’t surprising, since libraries are technology hubs. The head of the agency had a long career as a museum consultant, so the grants are consultant-heavy.

I was surprised at how dodgy some of the gifts were. I feel sorry for the librarians, curators, and others who have to listen for hours to consultant-speak about their implicit racism via new “IDEA” programs — lessons in inclusion, diversity, equity, and access — funded by IMLS. Even the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles has to face the music and dance the Diversity and Inclusion Dance, since evidently their docents don’t already and need some lessons, paid for by IMLS. These grants, which cover HR issues, not scholarship or content, are part of IMLS’s “Museums Empowered” program, which might as well be called “Museums Distracted.” They’re expensive sideshows and shouldn’t be a grant priority.

Portland, Ore., is in the middle of a nervous breakdown now. Still, I wonder how helpful will be a $107,000 IMLS grant teaching the Portland Museum of Art’s staff to use “the Pomegranate Method” to ease strains from “sudden demographic changes, rapid gentrification, a widespread housing crisis and a state of emergency on homelessness, and a significant increase in hate crimes against immigrants and communities of color.” Curators aren’t social workers. Many of the IMLS grants support projects peripheral at most to a library’s or a museum’s core missions.

These agencies’ appropriations amount to the tiniest slice of federal support for the arts in America. In Europe, culture, and that means most museums, theaters, symphonies, and opera companies, is owned, operated, and funded by government. There are some exceptions, and European governments are pushing all cultural institutions to raise money privately in exchange for some decision-making autonomy. It’s government-driven culture and often sclerotic and crony-driven.

In America, culture is a private affair, owned and directed by independent trustees and almost entirely funded by philanthropy. It’s a market model and accounts for the vibrancy and richness of the arts here. Yes, the lows are pretty low, but the highs are often the world’s best.

That philanthropy is tax-deductible. This tax expenditure is massive and incalculable. It embraces gifts of money and art. Endowment income isn’t taxed. Arts buildings are exempt from property taxes. Of course, everyone’s taxes are a little higher because of this indirect subsidy. So, federal, state, and local government support for the arts is foundational. Tax deductions for philanthropy outside the United States rarely exist, one reason charitable giving is so pathetic in Europe and Asia. People there expect the government to do everything.

The biggest beneficiaries of federal tax expenditures are the biggest museums, which have the biggest untaxed endowments, the biggest annual funds, and the biggest tax-exempt campuses, and usually get the biggest gifts of art.

Margaret Thatcher said “the smack of firm government” was sometimes a bracing, salubrious event. It aroused nostalgics among those Tories who missed both their nannies and the frisson of a beating with a cricket bat at school. It also provoked change. Cultural organizations are blessed in America since tax laws benefit philanthropy with no strings attached. Government is rarely so altruistic.

This is precious. It’s one rare example when tax law actually promotes freedom and experimentation without goring some disfavored part of the economy. Giving culture a hand and getting out of the way is fine as an abstraction for the Right, but if the Left doesn’t or won’t or can’t — their will to power is too strong — then there’s an imbalance. Do people on the right want nothing from these places? If they don’t, they’re chumps.

I’ve written about means-testing some of these programs. This will tend to redirect money from the big East Coast and West Coast institutions to other places. A bias toward American topics also makes sense. I would go further and suggest that the best art expresses the best human values. The country is a few years away from its 250th anniversary. Will our museums celebrate our civic heritage or dis it?

Big-city museums in New York, Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia own thousands of great works of art that are never shown because of space limitations. They live hidden in storage. At the same time, dozens of museums have collections with big gaps in them, often because their cities got rich too late and missed the best times to collect.

Do we want to encourage museums to “share the wealth,” to borrow a turn of phrase from Huey Long? I think Long wouldn’t have known a Jackson Pollock from flypaper streaked with dead bugs, but the basic concept of rich American cultural institutions strengthening those that are less rich isn’t actually radical. Do we want to use federal programs to encourage museums to make access less expensive? Stiff museum admission fees are a big reason poor people don’t go. Making good culture more accessible to everyone, poor as well as affluent, is a national concern.

Conservatives should have a deep interest in high culture. Without a fight, identity politics, diversity, multiculturalism, and political correctness will debase it and deaden it, and that’s bad for the country. This isn’t big government. It’s simply matching expectations with the direct federal grants and other assistance like federal indemnities we as a nation confer on not-for-profit culture. As Fiorello LaGuardia first observed, “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.”


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