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.