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Is there a Better Case for the Arts?
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March 07, 2005

Copernicus vs. the Blues Brothers

And now it's getting lively. If I can just insert a thought before Ben pulls the virtual pin out of the hand grenade Bill tossed to him . . .

The general theme of our commentary seems to be drifting in a familiar and revealing direction: we are hyper-critical of ourselves while attributing sinister motives to what may just be an impersonally changing environment. (I do think that there is hostility out there, I'm pretty certain that there is far more indifference.) I think that Adrian's use of the word adjacent is a good one -- we tend to see ourselves as adjacent to a lot of areas rather than part of a dynamic whole, an attitude which is no doubt the plight of the long term supplicant. Joli makes an excellent point when she asks us to consider the value of getting alongside the folks who don't participate in anything we do -- and also asks us to think about what we do as a social construct rather than, with apologies to the Blues Brothers, a mission from God.

I agree with Bill that we are looking at a tiny part of what the general public considers to be the arts. The 501 c3 model is not nimble, not preferred by a great many creative endeavors, and presents some pretty challenging inflexibilities insofar as it requires keeping a vast number of stakeholders happy all the time. If we look at it as one part of a much larger system we might begin to see more possibilities and broaden our definition of audience, and also gain a little perspective that is slightly more Copernican. Certainly we should keep looking at the horizon, as larger policy questions and tax reform that is ignored by our field will only make us feel more victimized in future.

From the few conversations I have had with the folks at HBO, I am confident that they didn't get where they are by deciding to serve up a televised version of gnostic cultural experiences. All of the creative focus is indeed on the work itself, on pushing back boundaries and making the work fresh. Perhaps we need, as one of NAS leading faculty members has commented with regard to strategy, to do less better?

Posted by rtaylor at March 7, 2005 06:39 PM


This comment is addressed to the entire panel.

Among the industrial countries, the United States is unique for its extremely low public funding for the arts. In all of the countries of Europe, the vast majority of arts funding is provided by the government. These policies are under assault, but it is unlikely that they will significantly change.

In France, one percent of the national budget is spent on culture each year, and this year's package is up 5.9 percent -- three times inflation -- at 2.79 billion euros. The US cultural budget, by comparison, is about 140 million dollars. The French cultural budget is thus well over 20 times higher than the NEA, even though France has less than a fourth the population of the United States. On a per capita basis, the French cultural budget is approximately 90 times higher.

The 2005 US budget is 2.4 trillion dollars. If the US spent one percent on culture like France, cultural funding would be 24 billion instead of about 140 million. That would make the NEA budget 171 times higher.

Europe's forms of public funding allow the arts to flourish in ways that are hardly imaginable in the United States. Germany, for example, has 23 times more full-time year round orchestras per capita than the USA. Even allowing for the most generous estimates, Germany has 28 times more year round opera houses per capita than the USA. (Actually we don't have any year round opera houses, but I added up the partial seasons to make an overall estimate.)

Europe's public funding is also tied to a similar *consistent and long term commitment* to arts education.

[For much more on the comparison of European and American arts funding models, see my article "Marketplace of Ideas" on the ArtsJournal.com website at: http://www.artsjournal.com/artswatch/ ]

Why do American arts administrators and advocates for the arts so seldom mention these differences? Why do we remain so silent about our poor record in comparison to Europe's?

Some comparisons are considered relevant. I just read about the Supreme Court's recent ruling that the execution of juvenile offenders is unconstitutional. The court said it was influenced by a desire to end the United States' international isolation on the issue. Commenting on the ruling, Justice Kennedy wrote, "Our determination finds confirmation in the stark reality that the United States is the only country in the world that continues to give official sanction to the juvenile death penalty."

We are also the only "first world" country that has no national health insurance. And we are the only "first world" country that doesn't provide public funding as the principle source for supporting the arts. The death penalty for children became an issue due to its extreme gravity, but I wonder if other comparisons with Europe, such as national health insurance and public arts funding will someday become relevant.

Will we ever have levels of culture like Europe's without a similar system of public funding? Is our own cultural identity somehow less important than theirs? Will our arts ever really flourish and be secure with a system of funding based on donations from the wealthy? Why do we often avoid discussing the fundamental problem America has of an equitable regional distribution of the arts that public funding could help provide? We have used our private donor system for decades. Will we eventually admit that it often doesn't work very well and that the long term commitment to public funding used by the Europeans has shown far better results?

Will this panel once again remain largely silent about America’s unique and embarrassing lack of public arts funding?

William Osborne

Posted by: William Osborne at March 7, 2005 06:43 PM

We are part of the fabric of our communities. Sons, daughters, brothers and sisters, the creators. What seems disconnected is the relationship between the famous and the average artist. How many average citizens, the public, understand the artistic life? I worked the board of a local "art center" that failed because there was no will in the community to support it. No one wealthy benefactor was willing to invest in the start up art center. The artists kept waiting for someone to come forward while they set unrealistic goals. After years of talk it faded away without notice.

It seems that there needs to be a real education about how and why art is made and why some artists deserve to be thought of as more than "art workers." Those who don't become super stars might be the main audience for many non-profits.

Posted by: Charles Hankin at March 7, 2005 07:19 PM

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Ben Cameron
Executive director of Theatre Communications Group more

Adrian Ellis
Managing consultant of AEA Consulting more

Bill Ivey
Director of the Curb Center, Former Chair, NEA more

Joli Jensen
Professor, University of Tulsa, Author: "Is Art Good for Us?" more

Jim Kelly
Director, 4Culture, Seattle, WA more

Phil Kennicott
Culture critic, Washington Post more

Glenn Lowry
Director, Museum of Modern Art more

Robert L. Lynch
President, Americans for the Arts more

Violinist more

Andrew Taylor
Director, Bolz Center, University of Wisconsin more

Russell Willis Taylor
President, National Arts Strategies more

Doug McLennan
Editor, ArtsJournal.com

Gifts of the MuseGifts of the Muse
Free access to the full RAND study at the core of this conversation, funded by the Wallace Foundation. An executive summary is also available. Other Wallace Foundation publications and reports are available through its Knowledge Center.

Top arts researchers will come together to present and dissect the latest data at Measuring the Muse, an unprecedented National Arts Journalism Program-Alliance for the Arts conference at Columbia University.

The Values Study
A collaborative effort of 20 Connecticut arts organizations, the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism, and facilitator/author Alan S. Brown. The effort trained arts leaders to interview key members of their constituency, to discover what they valued about the creative experience -- in their own words. The process was sponsored by The Wallace Foundation's State Arts Partnerships for Cultural Participation (START) Program.

Valuing Culture
An initiative of London-based think tank, Demos. This effort brought cultural and policy leaders together to discuss the public value of culture in the UK. Resources include (with a downloadable briefing report by Adrian Ellis), a collection of speeches from the event in June 2003, and a summary report by John Holden called Capturing Cultural Value.

The Arts and Economic Prosperity
The 2002 report and related resources assessing the economic impact of America's nonprofit arts industry, based on surveys of 3,000 nonprofit arts organizations and more than 40,000 attendees at arts events in 91 cities in 33 states, plus the District of Columbia.

The Value of the Performing Arts in Ten Communities
A project of the Performing Arts Research Coalition, researched by the Urban Institute, exploring measures of value in specific cities across the United States. Reports are available for download.

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