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June 18, 2007

The problem with government funding

by Greg Sandow

No, it's not that we don't have the will of Martin Luther King. Though we might remember that he led a movement that had arisen in large part spontaneously, and which was one of the strongest historical tides of its time. We'd be bucking the tides of history.

Our problem is that we don't have a good argument to support government funding. We doubt our own relevance, even our own legitimacy, or at the very least we don't know how to explain these things convincingly to other people. That's what all our debates are about.

So what are we going to tell congresspeople and senators (who'd have to pass any arts funding bill), not to mention our fellow taxpayers? What reason can we give everybody to support huge subsidies for us? At this point, we don't seem to know. Should we be honest, and say, "Well, we're losing our prestige, our funding, and our audience, so please bail us out"? That's not going to work.

In the end, the argument for vastly increased government funding would have to depend on the old belief that the canonical arts are inherently superior. It wouldn't matter how many people went to the opera or the ballet. It wouldn't matter if those numbers were growing or shrinking. The arts, we'd have to think, were inherently worthwhile, in ways that can't possibly be quantified. In fact, their minority status would be (in this way of thinking) an argument for their superiority. Of course the masses don't appreciate art. They're not equipped to, and aren't even meant to.

But these beliefs don't fly any more. Not enough people share them. So how could we use them to argue for government funding? We'd lose the fight.

(Parenthetically: The need for massive jumps in government funding has been argued before. In the late 1960s, American orchestras had a huge financial crisis, the largest they've ever had until now. In response, the Big Five commissioned McKinsey, the arts consultants, to do a study, which was delivered in two parts, an informal report to the Big Five in 1969, and a more formal document delivered to more than 20 large orchestras in 1972. McKinsey concluded that only government funding could save orchestras. They called for the federal government to supply 25% of orchestras' budgets, arguing -- ingenuously, in retrospect -- that since European governments provided 90%, 25% wasn't much to ask. The federal government never did this, of course, and instead, orchestras -- which up to then had hardly any budget for marketing and fundraising -- evolved the funding structure they have now.)

(Second parenthesis: There's another argument against increased government funding, or at least against any belief that government funding would be a stable remedy for the arts' fiscal problems. This argument would come from an economics principle called Baumol's Dilemma, after William J. Baumol, the economist who first propounded it. Baumol said that since service organizations in our economy don't show productivity increases the way manufacturing companies do, the proportional cost of keeping them alive keeps rising. Or, in simpler terms: They keep needing more and more money. Arts organizations were emphatically included; orchestras, in fact, were Baumol's key example. An automobile company can, over time, make more and more cars with fewer and fewer workers, but it'll always take the same number of musicians to play Mahler's Ninth.

(If Baumol is right, then government funding will have trouble keeping up with what the arts need. As time passes, the arts will need a higher and higher percentage of the government's budget, just to stay where they are.)

Posted by gsandow at June 18, 2007 11:19 AM


There's another argument against increased government funding, or at least against any belief that government funding would be a stable remedy for the arts' fiscal problems.

Actually, the cost-disease is the main economic argument for government subsidization of the arts, as it argues that the free market will, as time goes on, render the fixed costs of performance more and more expensive relative to the economy as a whole. In other words, orchestras and opera houses can operate at levels of efficiency that would make Frederick Taylor weep for joy, and they'll still lose money. Hence the need for outside funding to make up the difference. (That's if you buy the theory, or course--since Baumol and Bowen first suggested it, market-oriented economists have been trying to poke holes in it.) There's a perennial discussion in this country over whether the best source of that money is public or private, but Baumol's point was that subsidization is increasingly necessary, not increasingly futile.

Looking at government funding solely through a federal lens distorts any arguments for the arts towards broad-stroke meaninglessness. NEA funding isn't insubstantial, but in the grand scheme of things, it's largely symbolic. On the more important state and local level, though, the argument is an easy one: a healthy arts community increases the "livability" of a city or state, making it more attractive to possible residents/workers/businesses, etc. And while it's easy to roll one's eyes at yet another economic-impact study, having data that says the arts are providing this many jobs in your district/county/ward and pumping this much money into your constituents' businesses is speaking in politicians' language. (Again, there may be holes to be poked in any specific argument, but this is the argument that's most often being made, not some appeal to arts-are-good-for-you elitism.)

Posted by: Matthew at June 18, 2007 12:17 PM

Some very interesting neo-con arguments against public funding for the arts, Greg. Perhaps the Wall Street Journal will give you a raise. :-)

But seriously, it's true, America now has such widespread cultural illiteracy, and it has such a pervasively debasing mass media, that most Americans have no idea why public support for the arts would be beneficial.

It's a very clever argument you make. Through not funding the arts, and through eliminating arts education, we are destroying appreciation for our cultural heritage. Then we turn around and use that lack of appreciation as a justification for -continuing- to not fund the arts. Bravo! It's almost Orwellian.

Of course, decent educations would leave people with few doubts about why classical music is invaluable. Perhaps that's why you attack arts education as well. Let's protect the tender ears of our children from the evils of the musical cannon. See:


I am all for brave new worlds, but not those shaped by aesthetic zealotry. We should beware of ideologically driven artists who want to clear the stage of every kind of music they personally don't believe in, including much of our classical music heritage. This is a surprisingly wide-spread problem among composers. I have suffered from it myself.

European arts funding fundamentally disproves Baumol's theory. The cost of the arts there have actually remained stable. The German orchestra musicians union has not had a single strike during the 27 years I have lived there. For the most part, salaries have only been adjusted for inflation. (Compare that to what Baumol's "market" has done to gasoline prices.)

And let's not fall for the specious argument that something so utterly subtle and complex as arts appreciation can be summed up in five pages or less for Jesse Helms and his ilk.

Greg, please be careful. Your arguments are shaped by a totalizing aesthetic zealotry. That's OK for a composer, but very unfortunate for those involved in arts administration.

William Osborne

Posted by: William Osborne at June 18, 2007 1:08 PM

Greg makes the same mistake the arts continue to make. Gaining government funds has little to do with what your argument is or is not. It has to do with politics and politics has to do with fundraising, lobbying and playing the political game.

The arts have more than enough arguments to justify increased government funding support - benefits to the economy, to civic life, to education, to tourism, etc. etc. What the arts don't have is any organized, political muscle that would allow them to lobby effectively. As a special interest group (and in the overall scheme of politics, that is what the arts are - a special interest group - no more, no less), whether or not the arts succeed at winning greater government support has little to do with how you "justify" what you want, and everything to do with whether or not you have political clout. And clout comes from what kind of lobbying and campaign support machinery you have developed. It is naive to ask "what can we tell them". What you tell them is that there is money and votes for elected officials that support the arts, and that money and those votes go elsewhere for those who do not support the arts. Again, it isn't about a sector's "arguments" - that's not how the political system works.

Now if the arts sector doesn't want to be political, doesn't want to engage in the process, doesn't have the "will" to do so - that's another thing. That's fine, but don't confuse the reason why government funding doesn't increase to the extent desired with not having a good argument.

Posted by: Barry Hessenius at June 19, 2007 8:16 AM

Dear Greg:

When we look for government funding, organizing, and lobbying, I contend we focus on the wrong place. Federal funds function as a big band-aid, or perhaps a tourniquet would be a more apt analogy, in that the application thereof stops the bleeding but risks the limb.

Orchestras must organize locally. Pack the school board meetings. Demand music education in the schools, taught by music educators as a basic component of the primary and secondary school curriculum. Be prepared to do this for years. At every school board meeting in every school district in the United States for the foreseeable future parents and concerned citizens must show up in force and demand funding for music education and generally cause trouble.

We've tried for too long to fill the music education gap with kiddie concerts, ensembles in the schools, etc. That's all valuable, but it does not have the impact of a regular course of study taught in the classroom. The federal government cannot do this for us. We must organize locally, bring local political pressure to bear on school boards, and run our own candidates for school board positions.

In politics, especially local politics, organized, persistent, and vocal minorities get much of what they want. We've been distracted by the promise of big federal money for forty years. Put meaningful music education back in the schools, taught by professional educators, and we will find our audience in the next generation.

Posted by: James Hopkins, CFRE at June 19, 2007 10:23 AM

Greg, thanks to your posting on yoru main blog, I just discovered this series. I have a question: could Baumol have been wrong?

No, I'm not advocating playing Mahler at twice the speed. If you think of the unit of production as concerts played, he's right. But, as you've noted, people listen to this music on CDs, on iPods, and on their computers. If you think of the unit of production as person-symphonies (where 1 person listening to one symphony is 1 person-symphony, a live concert might be 2000 person-symphonyies (give them credit for one before and one after the intermission), then things change. You record one symphony on a CD and sell it 100,000 times (what are realistic figures?), and you've got (hopefully) well over 100,000 person-symphonies of production -- well over, because you hope it gets heard more than once.

If that's a reasonable way of looking at things, then it would seem that Baumol may not have been right, after all. There's still a problem, though -- if the number of person-symphonies consumed per year stays constant, the number of musicians needed to produce them drops, perhaps significantly. That's the challenge of a non-Baumolian world, the world most jobs live in these days.

Posted by: Bill Harris at June 25, 2007 9:10 PM

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