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Michael Kaiser

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Needed: A Federal Arts Policy

Posted: 07/06/09 12:25 PM ET

There is frequent discussion about the validity of federal funding for the arts in this nation; most recently, the inclusion of $50 million for employment in the arts in the stimulus package was the source of heated debate.

What we really need is a debate over federal arts policy. Most people do not know that no fewer than nine government agencies provide support to arts in this nation. That is not a typo. In addition to the National Endowment for the Arts, the national Endowment for the Humanities, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, arts money is also granted by the Departments of Commerce, Education, State, Agriculture, Defense, and Transportation!

Those of us in the arts are grateful for the many opportunities presented for federal support. The problem is that there is literally no coordination between these agencies on their arts spending, nor is there any central governing philosophy or policy.

For example, grants for arts education are given by several agencies yet there is no effort to coordinate the educational programming of the arts organizations receiving federal funds. This cannot yield the most effective or efficient results.

There is also no organized process for sharing what has been learned so that every arts organization must learn from its own mistakes. As a result, the federal government has been funding arts education in our public schools for decades and we still have not implemented a coherent approach to using the arts to benefit our children.

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?)

Instead, we need someone in the administration, perhaps the new Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, 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.

The arts have so much to contribute to this nation. We can teach our children to be the creative thinkers that our economy requires now and in the future, we can help rebuild the image of our nation abroad, we can assist in the effort to bolster tourism in the wake of the current economic crisis, and we can publicly celebrate the diversity of our nation.

But these vital goals will not be accomplished with the current helter-skelter approach to federal arts funding.