Fund too little, spend too much

Flickr: Images_of_Money and

The New York Times offers a bundle of short responses from the arts community on the subject of funding. The setup asks: ‘What can we do to stabilize funding for the arts? Can we learn from other countries’ examples?’ And it offers as inspiration Brazil’s large and growing social service (including arts) funding supported by a payroll tax. The responses flag the diverse and arms-length benefits of the American funding system, promote increased incentives for corporate and individual giving, and strive to place the arts in the larger nonprofit funding context.

But the conversation about increasing funding for the arts shares the same hollow ring as another meme floating through national politics: the government spends too much. Absent a goal, judgments about spending levels (too low or too high) are reasonably meaningless. Does the government fund the arts too little? Depends on what we decide we want our government to do. Does the government generally spend too much? Dunno. What do we expect our aggregate taxes to buy?

Obviously, the funding discussion is only partially about public funding. But since individuals, corporations, and foundations will decide on their own whether and where to spend, public funding is about the only lever we can publicly debate. Are we spending too much or too little on the arts? Let’s agree on the outcome we’re looking for in service to the public good, and then we can determine the correct proportion or amount.


  1. says

    The problem with tying funding to pre-determined outcomes is that arts organizations may well have to dress up proposals with non-essential programming purely to get it past the funder, when existing programs would do the job just as well, and probably better.

    For example, I worked at an arts organization in London when government arts funding was strongly tied to New Labour targets. One of the projects I worked on was a grant proposal to acquire a painting. The officer at the government funding program was adamant that we build new, customized educational programming around the artwork. So we did what we were told, and curators and education program staff sat around tables for weeks inventing activities.

    Problem was, the organization had thousands of artworks in its collection, and already had conceived extensive educational programming around the principle of providing multiple entry points to the collection that were as unbiased as possible, rather than showcasing pre-determined “masterpieces” (thus doing as much as possible to enable participants to make up their own minds about the art). The officer rejected our proposal that we integrate the painting into these existing activities, and insisted on new showcase programming. So we sweated it out, knowing we were being pulled against the grain.

    And the funding body declined our application. The explanation I got was that our application was fine, there were just too many other good projects at that particular funding meeting.

    As things turned out, we got another bite at the cherry, and later secured a grant which didn’t require us to twist ourselves into pretzels to invent new programming. To cut a long story short, the acquisition was a strategic as well as an artistic success, and was followed in succeeding years by more and significantly greater acquisitions. And, with time, the organization was able to build compatible public access programming around them whose scale and impact dwarfed that of the “against the grain” programming we had been compelled to include in that first proposal.

    The problem was that the outcomes of acquisitions need be assessed over a long-term period, and the officer of that first funding program refused point blank to accept that in order to fulfill internal, pre-determined outcomes, regardless of how much at odds these were with how such acquisitions actually benefit the public. This is also true of other projects I have worked on, which funders have insisted on shaping in order to advance their own agendas or timetables. The result is wasted effort and counterproductive activity, sapping the energy of already overstretched arts administrators.

    I’ve always found – on both sides of the Atlantic – that the best funders are those who truly take on board the difficulty of measuring outcomes in the arts, and as a result have a clear enough perspective to assess each proposal or arts organization on its own merits, rather than sidetrack applicants through inflexible adherence to pre-determined outcomes. And, in my experience, the results have been better for both sides.

  2. says

    I should add that there is a particularly chronic imbalance in US arts funding – i.e. too little from the government – which seems to me to be largely the result of inappropriate manipulation and suppression in order to advance unrelated party political agendas.

    The Brazilian model is an appealing one, but in the meantime work has been done here in the US towards striking that elusive proper balance of public/private arts funding that deserves a look.

    When he was on Obama’s transitional team for arts and culture, William Ivey came up with a figure of $450 million as an appropriate budget level for the NEA. Obviously that didn’t pan out – and in the wider scheme of things it’s probably still lower than it should be – but it seems as good a place as any to start.

    It would be instructive to know how that figure was arrived at. Anyone?

  3. says

    At my last job, a combination of private and sector dollars were pooled and we intended to buy cultural organization stability by providing 40 percent of the aggregate contributed incomes of 50 organizations. We mostly succeeded but some glaring market and management disasters produced some spectacular failures.
    At my current job, we invest in creativity by giving the gift of time to artists. Scientists get beakers and labs, athletes get coaches and gyms, artists need space and time. Arts funders don’t have to own what they fund. The satisfaction of investing in a process that contributes to the health and well-being of humankind is often enough.