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October 4, 2007

Making Choices

Bridgette Redman

I've been sitting back and watching the discussion between Mike Boehm and Jeff Croff in the comment trail of my entry last week, in part because I haven't wanted to interrupt an interesting dialog between the two.

I'm definitely a fence-sitter on this issue. I would love to see more public support and funding for the arts. I firmly believe that, like education, the benefits of the arts accrue to more than just the consumer of art (and I use consumer in a broad sense to mean not just the purchaser of a piece of art or a ticket, but anyone who experiences art in its many forms). I think the arts make our community and our world a better place to live in. They have the ability to instill us with hope and optimism or at least to give people an outlet to express their frustrations and cynicism with the reassurance that they're being heard.

However, I also believe that many artists have hurt the cause of public funding by being overly demanding and refusing to look at things realistically.

Last year, arts funding in our state was frozen. We were going through a budget crisis of epic proportions--one that resulted this past week in an increased income tax and expanded sales tax. We've had to do this because of fiscally irresponsible policies throughout the nineties where the state privatized those businesses that made money and refused to institute responsible tax policies because they needed their soundbite for campaigning. Ah, but I wander off into the political in a non-arts related way. Let me get back on track.

People were outraged that money was cut and rallied at the Capitol demanding not only that the arts money be unfrozen (it eventually was at about 75% of original levels) but that the funding be restored to levels that they were in past decades.

As much as I'm a supporter of the arts and in paying taxes to support the arts, that demand tasted sour in my mouth. What they seemed to be saying was that the arts were more important than human services, education, and public safety. The state was talking about shutting down entirely and the artists were demanding that they receive an increase in funding rather than joining in the conversation about how where they could make sacrifices without committing suicide. It was a loss of credibility.

When there are tough economic times, artists need to be realistic and accept that there isn't money to be had. They will have a tough time winning supporters if they claim that funding their season is more important than keeping the schools open or paying for a firefighter or keeping the ambulances running.

The flip side, though, is that when money is available, the arts need to be recognized as important to the quality of life of a community. Once you get past the minimum levels on Maslow's hierarchy of needs, it's going to be the arts that let your citizens climb from safety to belonging, esteem, and self-actualization.

Posted by Bridgette Redman at October 4, 2007 10:03 AM


Although I wish there were more public money available for the arts, I think there is something to be said about current methods of funding.

For one thing, many arts groups must build genuine ties to their communities in order to survive. In Peoria, for instance, the local symphony is able to exist because it has managed through the years to gain support from a cross-section of the city and region: businesses, local foundations, wealthy individuals. Moreover, they sell lots of tickets for their concerts.

They do receive state and federal money, but it amounts to less than 10 percent of their budget. In other words, government money is going to an institution that is supported and well-attended. I think this is a good thing.

I don't believe that organizations must already be established if they want NEA/state money. But I do think they should demonstrate in some way that the people in their respective communities want and value what they have to offer.

Posted by: gary panetta at October 4, 2007 10:54 AM

Shall we allow some specifics to inform this discussion rather than vague generalities?

There isn't a state in the union that is spending more than a nickel or a dime, relative to its overall budget, on the arts - single or low-double digit millions for most large states, often less than a million for the smallest or most benighted (California, by the way, is last in the nation, by far, in per-capita state arts funding - $5 million smackers a year, $1 million of which comes from the feds, $2 million from a voluntary (i.e. privately donated) extra license plate registration fee, and only about $2 million directly from state coffers).

The lesson is that if politicians aren't forced to pay a price for cutting funding for the arts, they'll do it every time, with impunity. Why are arts people afraid to seem selfish? Why would anyone buy into the either-or argument (social welfare and public safety or the arts), when there are all manner of other activities funded by states and municipalities that the arts might be lumped with, rather than health and safety? If you believe that something is important and there's a role for the government in providing it, you speak up publicly and twist arms behind the scenes as effectively as you can, year in and year out, finding the most effective and savvy point persons you can to carry the fight.

The best example I know is the New Jersey state budget crisis of 2003, which swung from utter disaster to triumph for the arts community, thanks to unabashed, unashamed public demonstrations and lobbying:

This is from artsblogNewJersey:

"For decades, New Jersey has been setting aside money for the arts in an erratic fashion. For example, in 2003 there was a $5 billion shortfall in the general budget, and former Gov. James E. McGreevey nearly eliminated all funding for the arts. The protests were loud and effective. They demonstrated how much residents value local theater, art exhibits and concerts.
In reaction to the public outcry, $16 million was scraped together and a 7 percent state hotel and motel occupancy tax was adopted. It was supposed to provide a permanent source of money for the arts with funding leveling off at about $20 million.
In 2005, arts funding reached its highest level ever: $22.3 million.
The following year arts funding was imperiled when newly elected Democratic Gov. Jon S. Corzine had a dispute with members of his own party, which controls both houses of the Legislature.
Readers will recall that political fighting grew so intense in the summer of 2006 that state government was shut down for a week.
When a deal was finally reached, the sales tax was increased from 6 percent to 7 percent.....To balance the budget, a portion of the lodging tax was used. Arts funding fell to $16 million....Finding a permanent source of revenue for the arts amid such fiscal problems and burdens might seem insignificant or undoable. Yet, as the 2003 outcry showed, many people want our state to fund a diverse group of high-quality arts organizations. That's why the funding should be stabilized and not reduced to a game of chance each year.
The hotel and motel sales tax was supposed to provide permanent funding for the arts. But like every other pot of money in the state, it now gets tapped to close budget gaps.
This should not happen. Music, dance and theater are important enough to New Jersey that they should have a regular revenue stream."

So the victory wasn't as final and complete as initially hoped. Yes, the NJ pols raided what they'd previously said would be a cookie jar just for the arts. But having been singed by rallies and extreme pressure in 2003, it will likely be a long time before NJ officials venture to utterly decimate arts funding, as commonly happens elsewhere. They know what the consequences are likely to be -- the kinds of outcry and hassles that no politician wants.

Posted by: Mike Boehm at October 4, 2007 12:28 PM

Ms. Redman:

Remember the Depression and the WPA? With almost no money, the government paid artists to work.

Regina Hackett

Posted by: Regina Hackett at October 12, 2007 1:42 AM