There has been some excellent discussion in the blogosphere recently over the value of the NEA in light of its budget being cut by $21 million in a House vote. Often the site of controversy, federal funding for the arts has once again risen to the forefront of debate. In some ways, this whole discussion seems laughable, because $21 million in light of the federal budget as a whole is no more than chump change. In fact, the entire budget of the NEA is inconsequential compared to the deficit and debt we are facing as a country, making little to no difference in economic terms. But perhaps what is so galling about the NEA to economic and political analysts is that the value of the arts to this country cannot be easily quantified in terms of societal benefits – and therefore is rarely adequately addressed through the language of the market. Rather, the value placed on art betrays deeply personal preferences.

Tax Subsidies for the Arts

Isaac Butler and Matt Yglesias have picked up on the excellent point that much of federal subsidization of art is largely hidden in tax subsidies in this country, which partner with private funders to provide “decentralized funding of aesthetic endeavors.” Because this is a blanket exception in our tax code, subsidizing charitable donations to many non-arts (and thus more difficult to target) 501(c)(3) non-profit entities that provide blankets to homeless shelters, etc, it is not talked about and thus works equally well for conservatives and liberals as a hidden source of arts funding determined not by the federal government but by wealthy people and their foundations.

As one whose work is funded by this system, whose position and title and every endeavor relies upon a team of people within my institution who write grants and wheedle charitable donations from private and corporate givers and deal with countless memberships, I wanted to add my perspective to this discussion. Our current arts funding system does (at least on the surface) seem to allow for a greater freedom of art practices, and thus a more entrepreneurial and innovative scrappiness on the level of the individual artist or small organization.

The Limits of Scale

However, there is a limit of scale that occurs as arts organizations grow to a municipal or state level within this system. Arts patronage on a scale massive enough to fund these larger initiatives is extremely rare, and begins to meld into a power brokerage that in fact supresses innovative art that could be relevant to a city-wide audience. We begin to see the blockbuster art/entertainment exhibitions and privately funded vanity museums of the extremely wealthy, and one wonders if these subsidies only leads to a vicious cycle of insider-dom. It is again very difficult to measure the societal benefits of power-broker art patronage (who can argue against the famed Getty Center, or the Barnes, or countless other institutions that started in this way?) but one wonders if this country might be missing out on central artistic vision with a view towards the historical, such as that which might stem from a Cultural Ministry.

And even though the small organization or individual artist might seem to benefit from the subsidy system, there is the very real issue of capacity, and the impossibility of most artists to cobble together any kind of living wage. With the advent of non-object-based visual and performative work, most artists I know lose money on their art practices – even those that have extremely successful gallery and museum shows and are considered well-established artists. They simply don’t have the capacity or ability to search out the arts funding they need, and that funding is mostly restricted and cannot be used for real living expenses.The “starving artist” paradigm is an accepted situation – but why must it be? Doesn’t that bespeak an abysmally low value assigned to artistic work compared to the stunning figures quoted by Isaac Butler in terms of art’s economic value to a community? Artists do not reap any benefit from their stimulating “scavenger” work, from their ability to foment urban renewal out of nothingness – developers and businesspeople do. This does not mean that increased government subsidies for artists is the answer…but some return on artistic investment seems worth exploring.

So in a way, the NEA debate is merely the smallest sliver of this messed-up arts funding pie in America. I take issue with Matt Yglesias’s reading of federal arts funding as subsidizing essentially local issues (interestingly enough, he was my editor-in-chief when I was the arts editor of the Harvard Independent, way back when). This hearkens back to my assertion that it is dangerous to view the arts only within the language of markets, rather than a language of values. The localism argument assumes that the arts will be funded at all, and that localities would agree to the quality of life it imparts. In fact, I would posit that in many places, arts wouldn’t be funded at all if federal dollars were never made available. Why build a museum instead of a park? So the question really is, what is the value of arts to this country?

My personal view is that art has enormous value to innovation, and that divergent thinking is more clearly encouraged in art schools than it is in engineering, math, or technology departments. See my previous post on the untapped relevance of university art departments. The Obama Administration is making much of the STEM “Educate to Innovate” initiative to train more students in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math – I cannot understand why it is not STEAM instead. Unless the economic, societal, educational, and innovative value of art is taken more seriously, it will be continually doomed to the sidelines when it could offer real divergency and value to our deepest societal and cultural issues, as well as new ways to “win the future.”