Are the Arts Only For the Rich?

TAKE the long view, and people and institutions have been trying to destroy culture, and the people who make it, for centuries. Among the latest attacks has been the category of the “cultural elite,” and the implication that anyone who enjoys the arts or takes place in their making is not a real American. It’s a weird mix of class-based prairie populism, old-fashioned native anti-intellectualism, and something that smells a bit like the Red Scare: “Arts people are not like us.”

Newt Gingrich — a figure I sometimes think is as important to our current predicament as that transformative Ronald Reagan — rode the “cultural elite” idea hard, and much of the political right picked up on it as a way to undercut the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities.

Gingrich’s doe-eyed inheritor, Paul Ryan, has been similarly hostile describing the arts and humanities as “generally enjoyed by people of higher-income levels, making them a wealth transfer from poorer to wealthier citizens.”

A new study from The National Center for Arts Research at Southern Methodist University shows that Ryan and company are wrong on this. From a short, sharp story in T220px-Paul_Ryan_by_Gage_Skidmore_2he New Republic:

As it turns out, arts organizations that receive federal funding tend to serve economically diverse areas. The study contrasts NEA grantees to other arts organizations and finds that the former usually operate out of cities and towns with a higher share of both residents below the poverty line and those with household incomes exceeding $200,000 a year. In other words, the NEA seems inclined to focus its resources on metro areas that encompass a broad socioeconomic range, not homogenous, well-to-do communities.


The study also takes a stab at the underlying question: “Do the arts—and therefore government funding for the arts—constitute an allocation of disproportionate benefits to the wealthy?” But the data suggest that arts audiences are far more diverse than Ryan—or I—would have expected. The researchers found no correlation between a community’s median income and arts attendance. Rather, “attendance at arts organizations increases as the percentages of both wealthy households and households below the poverty line increase.”

Overall, NEA funding, and attempts to build audiences for culture, resonate at virtually all income levels.

DISCLOSURE: Former NEA chief Dana Gioia is an old friend and sparring partner of mine.

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  1. says

    Two Youtube videos of Renee Fleming’s bel canto performance of the national anthem at the Super Bowl have had 825,000 hits since it was posted three days ago. I suspect the videos will reach over a million hits fairly soon. This also suggests that arts like opera are not only for the wealthy.

  2. says

    Whatever you choose to call supporters and interested persons in the Arts, they have been playing defense ever since Don Wildmon’s American Family Radio waged war against contemporary culture. That war has been so successful that the words “wealthy” and “elite” have become code for anyone who doesn’t support a neo=liberal view of conservative populism.

    What has become ridiculous in the arts advocate field is the growing acceptance that NEA money going to a community arts program is automatically on the same scale of importance as, say, funding a institutions research program or major works exhibition. It might be on some level, but populism doesn’t necessarily equate with good education or knowledge.

    And what is even more ridiculous is the belief that a paltry NEA budget of $149 million dollars can be meaningful to a country. It’s like arguing over how a loaf of bread can best feed 50 people.

  3. says

    If you look at the price of an average ticket to a play or dance (around $20) and if you look at the average price of artwork (for example at the affordable art fair (around 1000.) based on a middle class income of under 100k for a family of four, then in a way the argument isn’t that the arts are only for the rich but that the middle class can’t afford the arts.
    I know that museums offer a lot of free nights, and plays and operas are sometimes broadcast – which is certainly moving in the right direction. But until the arts are truly affordable then they will not be part of the normal consumption of the average American- as in, hey, let’s go to a movie it’s only $8 dollars- to hey, let’s go to a play – it’s only $8.
    And the visual arts is even more stuck in this conundrum. Artist complain about the rise of prints being sold more than artwork… yet prints are affordable – artwork isn’t. And once you set your price on a painting at say $1000. you’re now trapped in a cycle of having to protect the investment of your collectors by maintaining the prices and eventually raising them – pricing yourself even further from the middle class.
    I wish I knew what the solution was… one that paid artist a decent wage for their work and at the same time offered truly affordable work. If I was fabulously wealthy I would start a collective/company that worked on this model – anyone want to invest? :~)

  4. says

    I am really pleased so far on the quality of the comments on this blog, and Ms. Withers argument is crucial. I agree with most of what she says. The critic Lee Siegel has written on the price inflation of theater and performing arts. I’ll try to come back to this essential issue over time. Of course, I welcome more comments on the matter as well.

  5. C.Goldstein says

    When the arts are characterized as ‘elite’ it signifies an unseemly ignorance of the history
    of the arts in the US and in Europe as well as that of the artists, themselves.there is no guarantee, by the way, that upper middleclass and upper class socio-economic groups know anything about any of the arts
    referred to as elite, nor do the private schools necessarily take advantage of the museums, or concerts,
    or pass a love of them to the children. Many who are wealthy may purchase paintings, sculptures, etc. but know nothing about it. If a survey was taken of Board members of museums and orchhestras and libraries,
    the results of their knowledge about the areas over which they determine policy would be quite amazing.
    Hvaing atated the above, there is no question but the arts in this country, especially, are under attack, aand the individuals responsible must be held to account.

  6. SMUComposer says

    I am a classical music composer at SMU just down the hall from the center that did this study, and I cannot afford to attend most music concerts without free or highly discounted tickets. Because of simple economics, most of the arts are being priced out of reach of the average citizen. Many of the wealthy patrons I have met DO know a LOT about the art they purchase and support – let’s not be quick to condemn them either. When a weekly Dallas Symphony concert ticket for a floor seat is $100 that is just as out of reach as is a Dallas Cowboys ticket for $250. Or Styx concert tickets at $250-300. Prices are just going up faster than the income of most people and all but the top 1% artists. When the majority of artists cannot afford to attend the art fields in which they create without help, that signals that there is SOMETHING wrong with the system… Just not the problem most politicians point to.

    • says

      Ticket prices, of course, aren’t the only problem with our system of funding the arts by the wealthy. A few years ago Dallas built a luxurious opera house. It’s named after a man who gave 40 million dollars toward its construction. And yet Dallas remains 275th in the world for opera performances per year. The wealthy are often willing to donate for a building named after them, but they are less willing to offer the continuous and more anonymous support for seasons with substantial programming – much less a season most people can afford.

      Same story with the Kennedy Center Opera House. It was built over 40 years ago, but Washington D.C. still ranks 180th in the world for opera performances per year, and the few performances are very expensive.

      Comparisons with the public funding systems used in Europe are telling. Opera houses are vastly more common, and the tickets on average about one quarter to one third the price. Same story with orchestras.

      • SMUComposer says

        Agreed! I have thought that exact same thing as I see these palaces built and so rarely booked with arts events – ENTERTAINMENT has taken the place of the ARTS in many peoples’ minds. Thus, buildings have become more important than the activities inside for many wealthy patrons.

  7. Art says

    I think you also need to take into account the fact that a “job” in the arts is the typical “occupation” of your average trustfunder. They don’t need to work for money so they can choose their employment which almost always means a “job” pretending to be paid to assess poetry submissions, run a vanity press or vanity record label, organize gallery showings, manage bands, etc.
    The real problem with the arts is that it’s assessed and managed by people who have never had to go without, and whom feel their wealth qualifies them to tell the difference between something well crafted and something not; and our arts now reflect that. Every art is a celebration of just how swell it is to be rich and live in the inner city – mass production and gaudy labels. Anything that deviates from this celebration of consumer-values is merely to paint a contrasting picture of the poor as violent thugs or grotesque rurals. Art is assessed by people who represent a thin sliver of the human experience who validate their lifestyle with art that celebrates it.
    Art sucks because the offspring of rich people have the ability to work for free and choose to work at jobs that get their egos petted rather than volunteering where it matters.
    Art sucks because it is graded by people who know ‘because they know’ rather than a certifiable education. Art just sucks… which is a shame because when people used to say how ugly the species was art was always the fallback – “Oh, but look at Shakespeare, Part, Van Gogh, Keats, etc.” What do we do now? Justify our ugliness with Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst; or are they just the bleak results of the biopsy?

    • Neil McGowan says

      That may be true in certain countries, but it is not universally true. I can only think of a tiny number of such cases myself where I am based. I am acutely aware of what it is like not to know where your next meal is coming from, and have been in that situation myself (without going into lurid details of periods spent homeless in the past).

      Most people I know working in the arts live hand-to-mouth, often in very dismal circumstances. Very little of the money at the top peters down to the bottom – yet there would be no shows if there weren’t scenery-shifters, lighting operators, ticket-attendants or other unsung staffers.

  8. Neil McGowan says

    I think it’s fairly clear that ticket-price is a major consideration – if not *the* major consideration – for a large number of people. I live in Moscow, where access to classical music events works on a wholly different price paradigm. If you want to get spendy, you can indeed splash for a $120 top-price ticket at the Bolshoi – but you can sit upstairs for $30 and still enjoy a good view and excellent acoustics. The only problem is getting a ticket at all – at these prices, they get snapped up fast, and most shows perform to 100% houses. (A further problem is ticket touts buying face-price tickets, and selling them to unsuspecting tourists for 2-3 times the face price). But the Bolshoi is not the only show in town. At Stanislavsky-Danchenko opera/ballet theatre (where, ehem, I sometimes work) you can attend shows from $25 to $85 per seat. (Sometimes higher for gala solo performances of world-famous names who give guest performances – but the basic range of shows is $25-$85). Then there are opera theatres like Helikon Opera, Novaya Opera and the Pokrovsky Chamber Opera, whose tickets are a little less expensive.

    You can go to symphonic concerts from $20 in the balcony (at the Conservatoire, for excellent concerts) and to chamber concerts for less.

    There is huge attendance. I have to say that the fare is generally on the stodgy and conservative side in most cases, but this seems to be what audiences like. Yet we have staged concerts with works by Finnissey and Maxwell-Davies that have also had 85% attendance – audiences are prepared to try “new works’ if it does not involve substantial financial outlay.

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