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 The 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.