Huffpost Culture

Is Federal Money The Best Way To Fund The Arts? Join The Debate

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Early this year, Yancey Strickler, one of the founders of the crowd-sourced funding site Kickstarter, made a big claim. In an interview repeated across the internet, Strickler said Kickstarter expects to distribute more money in 2012 than the National Endowment for the Arts' entire fiscal budget for the year. The comparison drew ire from critics who pointed out the NEA's larger function to make art accessible, as well as the many successful Kickstarter projects that aren't about art so much as commerce. But nuances didn't detract from the drama of a 4-year-old startup calling into question the relevance of a 47-year-old government agency. When the NEA slashed funding last month to two entities historically dependent on it, public television and public radio, the question of its effectiveness became impossible to avoid.

We here at HuffPost Culture would like to examine what is undoubtedly an inflection point in the evolution of arts funding. In the face of headlines gleefully crowning lighter, faster online models as inevitable successors, is federal funding worth protecting? Is it the best way to fund the arts? The worst? Is there some other model -- already in existence somewhere in the world, or yet to be discovered -- worth exploring? Should we even be funding the arts?

These are the questions at the heart of HuffPost Culture's first installment in the site-wide series "Change My Mind." We've asked two experts on opposing sides to argue their case. Read their opinions below, and let us know your take in the comments. Did you change your mind?

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Pre-debate poll:

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Federal government money is the best way to fund the arts.

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Who makes the better argument?

Carla Escoda Former dancer, research scientist & investment banker turned ballet teacher and arts blogger

Funding the arts in America should be a national priority. Bolstering national commitment to the arts will renew America's competitive edge, and have a far-reaching influence on strategic issues of domestic and international security.

President Obama, worried that Singapore or Korea may be incubating the next Steve Jobs, wants to put more math and science teachers in classrooms. Just teaching more math and science, however, doesn't produce brilliant scientists and engineers -- you can't ignite the spark of innovation if the pilot light of creativity isn't lit. A growing body of research connects the practice of arts and music to the essential skills, values and discipline exhibited by great inventors and innovators: "The arts may not be rocket science; but they make rocket science possible."

Today, what distinguishes the Singaporeans and Koreans is their ability to reverse-engineer products and processes, whereas Americans still excel at product concept and design. 'Thinking outside the box,' the ability to tackle challenges from new and unconventional angles, is still considered a uniquely American trait. This is what the arts teach us: to illuminate the human condition, to think in metaphors, to express ideas in thought-provoking ways, to imagine something better -- which is how one moves the world forward.

In 2008, then-Senator Obama argued powerfully for reinvestment in arts education, a platform reinforced by a 2011 White House policy paper. Since then, he has backed off, forced to tighten the nation's belt after bailing out banks that were too big to fail and companies that made cars no one wanted to buy, staying up at night worrying about how to pay for 2,456 of those sexy Lockheed Martin F-35 stealth fighter jets at a price tag of close to 0 billion.

A dysfunctional Congress has been busy rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, chipping away at the NEA budget from a high of 6 million in 1992 to a pitiful 6 million today, less than 50¢ per person. Meanwhile Europe averages - per person, even after deep arts budget cuts in countries like the U.K. and Spain. The astute German Culture Minister, Bernd Neumann, calls his country's 5.1% increase in its arts funding commitment "a significant investment in the future of our country," not a "subsidy."

In dire economic times, the arts serve an even more critical function than in times of prosperity. Venezuela has made a massive investment in El Sistema, a network of orchestras which target social change through classical music education for nearly half a million of the nation's underprivileged children. This is not a cultural policy, but a highly targeted national security strategy to keep disadvantaged, at-risk youth off the streets and out of the correctional system, to give them a sense of what discipline and dedication to a higher ideal can achieve.

In America, where the prison population has tripled in 20 years, with 1 out of every 99 adults currently behind bars, and the costs of incarceration estimated at billion in 2011, policy-makers must start implementing arts training as a preventive strategy. One study concludes that at-risk teenagers "who have a history of in-depth arts involvement show better academic outcomes... demonstrate higher rates of college enrollment and attainment... are more likely to show civic-minded behavior than young adults who did not."

Few arts companies today have the bandwidth to tackle this challenge. The tiny but feisty New York Theatre Ballet, boxing way above its weight class, is one of few that do, with an innovative outreach program called LIFT.

Detractors may argue that the private sector does a more effective job of funding the arts than the federal government. However, as we have seen many times over, private patronage is often little more than self-gratification; art that is paid for by billionaires and private corporations usually -- and not unreasonably -- reflects their narrow priorities and aspirations, not the larger community's. When the New York State Theater must give up its perfectly good name to be rechristened the David H. Koch Theater, and when John Fry can fly in a foreign ballet star to partner his girlfriend at Ballet San Jose because his donations eclipse everyone else's, it's clear that private arts funding is no longer serving a broad public purpose.

Private philanthropy is also much more volatile than government funding, as evidenced by the withering of private grant and foundation funding during the recent economic crises. Arts institutions cannot develop programs and nurture artistic talent if donations fluctuate year-to-year according to the whims and fortunes of their individual and corporate donors. Two of America's most talented and prolific modern dance choreographers, Mark Morris and William Forsythe, were nurtured early on by European dance companies who gave them the multi-year funding and infrastructure -- and opportunities to fail -- that they would never have received in America.

As you Peter Orszag-types tot up the costs of funding LIFT and El Sistema programs across the nation, let me point out that cutting just one F-35 from the defense budget would double the NEA budget, leaving Mr. Panetta with 2,455 more. Further reallocating a tiny portion of the defense budget to fund tours for American performing arts companies to strategically important countries makes them a potent weapon in the battle to win hearts and minds -- a strategy employed very successfully after World War II. After all, this is a national security issue, not cultural policy.

Ian David Moss Research Director, Fractured Atlas

If you were expecting a fiery screed against the evils of the National Endowment for the Arts or the inherent wastefulness of government funding, I'm sorry to disappoint you. I support the NEA and will fight any and all efforts by either party to drive its already "pathetic" budget even further into fiscal oblivion. Indeed, I believe that government has an important role to play in distributing and equalizing opportunities for making and experiencing art, especially geographically and across class divisions.

But that's not the question at hand. The Huffington Post doesn't ask us whether the federal government should support the arts, it asks whether federal government money is the best way to support the arts -- a key distinction. For as much room as the United States has to step up its commitment to the arts in the form of public dollars, we are not likely to see the federal government become the primary source of support for the arts in this country in our lifetimes, or those of our children or children's children for that matter. And frankly, that's probably for the best.

This year, Americans for the Arts (our field's chief advocacy group) is asking for 5 million for the NEA, a 6% increase over last year's enacted level, and .5 million below the agency's appropriation in FY2010. Such small potatoes! But the truth is that the NEA's budget could increase a hundredfold and still not pay for even a quarter of nonprofit arts organizations' billion in annual spending. Where does the rest of the money come from? Not from the government, according to a study commissioned by the NEA itself. Taken together, federal, state, and local investment generates just 13% of the typical arts organization's budget. (And that number almost certainly goes down even further when you throw for-profit arts organizations into the mix.) No, the vast majority of arts funding in the United States comes from the private sector: either earned revenue from ticket sales or other services, or donations from foundations, corporations and individuals. And most of that money comes from people like you and me, voting with their dollars.

Arts supporters in the United States often look to our more cultured brothers and sisters across the Atlantic Ocean with longing for their civilized systems of arts funding that provide far more capital per resident than our own. The numbers just look so inviting: Germany's federal government, for example, plowed some 1.22 billion euros, or about .7 billion, into its cultural ecosystem in 2007. That investment of over per German citizen absolutely dwarfs the 41 cents per red-blooded American provided by the NEA. What artist wouldn't want to live there?

But that comparison is deceiving, because United States has a secret weapon: the charitable tax deduction, and more importantly, the culture of private giving that has grown up around it. It turns out that the counterpart to all that money that Americans give annually to the arts just doesn't exist in Germany, or any other developed country for that matter. Oh, to be sure, it would be inaccurate to say that there is no private giving in Germany - there is, and there are tax incentives for it too. But according to a 2006 analysis by Charities Aid Foundation, the USA's charitable giving is more than seven times that of Germany's as a percentage of GDP - and no other country in the sample comes even as close as half. Assuming that the percentage of money given to the arts is comparable between countries, we can figure that German arts organizations receive something on the order of 0 million per year in private funding, compared to .3 billion on our side of the pond. How do you like them apples, Berlin?

Perhaps that's why, in the face of recession-induced cuts, a number of governments in Europe are starting to give the American model more serious consideration -- and a number of European arts organizations are going after American donors. Which highlights another downside of a government-dominant system: any shock to public revenue streams could be life or death to grant recipients, rather than just another challenge to overcome. A survey of arts groups in the UK found that more than a ninth of those who lost their funding in a round of government cuts intend to close up shop, and another 22% considered themselves at risk of failure. And this was after relatively mild cuts of 15% from Arts Council England, which is already a bit of a hybrid between the European and American system. Dutch cuts of 25% last year resulted in a dramatic reshaping of the national cultural landscape that particularly affected smaller and grassroots institutions. Following federal government cuts of 100% in 2010, staff at Sarajevo's National Museum have gone unpaid for seven months! Here in the US, we fight hard every year for the NEA to survive, and we should - but there is nevertheless some comfort in knowing that if it goes away, the arts won't be dragged down the drain with it.

Finally, it must be pointed out that we can't take for granted that government funding for the arts will always be virtuous in purpose. One could argue that Western Europeans have lucked into a happy accident of history that combines exceptional largesse with a largely hands-off approach. Some countries, such as the former Soviet Union and modern-day China, have had no qualms about using state power to exercise censorship on a vast scale and co-opt the arts for nationalistic purposes. Closer to home, even Hungary's arts community has seen significant turmoil due to the meddling of a newly elected conservative government. And while it's hard to imagine anything destroying Sweden's commitment to public funding of the arts, the recent scandal involving that country's culture minister cutting a "racist cake" certainly gives critics some ripe material.

So, arts lovers: go ahead and write your letters to Congress asking for level funding, that 6% increase, or whatever you want. A 0 million or 0 million or even 0 million NEA would be a great thing for this country. But once federal funding becomes less of a joke, it may well become more of a headache. It's all well and good to point to the Europeans as a model; just don't be surprised if they're the ones mimicking us in the end.

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Federal government money is the best way to fund the arts.

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