I fear that what I’m going to say might ignite a firestorm. But I think it needs to be said.
We hear a lot — or at least we do if we’re in the arts — about an arts bailout. Many people (in the arts, at least) want money for the arts included in the stimulus bill. I get e-mail about that, and eager Twitter tweets. Please support an arts bailout, these communications say. E-mail your senator, your congressperson.
And in fact there’s a $50 million supplement to the NEA budget in the bill that passed the House. It’s not in the version of the bill the Senate’s looking at, so if that bill passes in the Senate, the Senate and the House will have to negotiate the differences. And so the arts money might well be debated.
I can understand why arts people want that money. And, I’d imagine, whatever other bailout money might be possible to get. For one thing — let’s be honest — all of us naturally support our own causes. Every industry, and every interest group, is making arguments for their inclusion. Why not arts?
But beyond that, arts people — and this is one of our best qualities — are enthusiastic about the arts. There’s something bright and eager in our advocacy, something that might go beyond the grimmer need in other pleas. The downside of this is, though, that we sometimes have an aura of entitlement, a sense that art is good for people, good for the country, superior, in tact, to other things, and so thus the money for the arts just has to be there.
And then there’s the very simple argument — very direct and to the point — which a friend of mine in the music business made on the phone to me: Arts jobs are as real (and as important to anyone who holds them) as any other jobs. So why not protect them, or restore them?
But there are two large arguments against all this. Or, at least, arguments we’d better think about before we make our case.
Arts money isn’t simply there to take. It has to be allocated, and if it isn’t allocated for the arts, it’ll go to something else. Cut now to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors (aka the city council, as it’s called in many other cities), which at a recent meeting debated an $8 million cut in public health expenditures. This is part of a plan to cut $100 million from the San Francisco budget, since the city faces deficits as high as $575 million.
The health money could be saved, according to one plan, in part by cutting money for the arts. And so people from the ballet and the symphony were at the meeting, arguing that their groups, too, performed a public service.
Which in some ways might be reasonable. But how would you feel, if you were from the symphony and ballet, and had to make your case with people demonstrating outside, saying “We can’t be cutting food stamps at the time people need food”? Dozens of supporters, says the story that I’ve linked to, from San Francisco’s BeyondChron website, “streamed into the supervisors’ chamber to give some four hours of
testimony in support of their work. Speakers gave stories of lives
turned around and saved by the various organizations as well as
emotional pleas not to cut funding from already strained social
services….[A]gencies facing funding cuts include tenants’ advocacy organizations,
substance abuse treatment programs, homeless shelters, and the city’s
own job placement programs.”
Would you really want to testify in favor of taking money from all that, especially when the symphony and ballet audience is largely upscale, and comfortable? Here’s a report from James Glicker, who used to run the Baltimore Symphony. He told this story as part of a comment to another post here:
One highly placed politician in Maryland told me (when I came hat in hand asking for more money) that he had to choose that day between closing a fire station in a depressed neighborhood or installing metal detectors in 50 schools. ‘You want me to divert that money to pay for a symphony orchestra program?’ he asked me incredulously.
In New York State, the governor’s proposed budget for next year will end all grants to zoos, botantical gardens, and aquariums. “The state cuts [says the New York Times story I've linked to], combined with a precipitous drop in endowment funds and corporate donations, have organizations from the New York Botanical Garden to the Niagara Falls Aquarium to the Utica Zoo reeling.” People from all walks of life love these institutions. Children love them. And then there’s the welfare of the elephants, whales, and fish. The arts are worthy, but how comfortable would you be, arguing that opera is more important than the local zoo?
And yes, you could say that zoos should get their money, but that orchestras should get some, too. But that evades the need for choices. Rarely, in the abundant years of recent memory, did we think that we might have to choose between Beethoven and public health, or rather between giving money to one or the other. The New York Daily News ran a story about what the stimulus bill would do for New York City. With it ran a photo of a New York politician, standing in front of a display of things the stimulus would give the city, including more police (when the economic crisis is forcing cuts), health care, housing, schools, job training, food stamps.
And if you think some of that money could be siphoned to the arts, where, exactly, would you cut? Would you (to cite some things mentioned in the story that I linked) deny a public housing project roof repairs? Stop renovating doubtless rundown kitchens and bathrooms in other public housing? Block 2000 classrooms from connecting to the Internet? Prevent an overhaul of Harlem Hospital?
Maybe the arts still should get some money, but the argument has to be a lot more nuanced. We can’t just say, “the arts are wonderful, and arts jobs should be saved.” Especially when…
There might be a backlash
In November, a writer in the San Francisco Weekly scathingly denounced lavish spending by large San Francisco arts organizations, focusing, for instance, on what Michael Tilson Thomas gets paid — more than $2 million each year, the article said. In response, the president of the Board of Supervisors vowed to cut the symphony’s funding.
Philistines, someone might object. MTT is worth it. He’s paid the going market rate for top conductors. Brent Assink, the Symphony’s Executive Director, said the facts were wrong, that MTT makes less than the article asserted. Mark Swed, classical music critic for the Los Angeles Times, said the city, if the cuts went through, can’t promote itself as a sophisticated city.
But does anyone think that similar things might be said if an arts bailout is seriously debated? At a time when all the civic cuts that I’ve discussed here will very likely happen, how do we justify support for the Metropolitan Opera, when it sells tickets for $375 and has donors who’ll give millions individually (and in one case, $25 million)? How, politically, will we argue that the New York Philharmonic needs some bailout funds, when it paid Lorin Maazel over $2 million, and pays its president, Zarin Mehta, more than $800,000?
In a country that’s outraged over Wall Street bonuses (and auto company corporate jets), I don’t think that bailouts for large and lavish arts groups can easily be passed. If, that is, they’re openly debated. And yes, I know the Met is in financial trouble, and of course I know that banks with hugely paid executives are getting bailouts. But the banks are getting bailouts so we can save our financial system, and get credit flowing again, so that working people and small businesses can get loans. What will the reaction be to bailouts for arts groups with a lot of money, and whose audience is also comfortably off?
The backlash to all this could be toxic. We’d better be careful how we argue for support, and about what kind of support we argue for. Can we fashion an arts bailout package that focuses on small organizations, with audiences of people from the middle class? Personally, I’d support an arts program like the depression-era WPA, where the money goes directly to independent projects that employ artists and create new art.
But whatever we propose, we’d better be very careful about what we’re asking for, and how possible it is, politically, to get what we want.
(Footnote: suppose the NEA gets that extra $50 million, and suppose it distributes the money in the same way it makes its normal grants. I spent a few minutes with the NEA’s report of its most recent opera grants. Turns out 1/3 of the grantees (approximately) get 2/3 of the money. They’re the bigger opera companies, of course. So if some of the $50 million goes to opera companies, in the pattern of previous funding, the bulk of the opera stimulus would go to organizations many or most of which have expensive tickets, high salaries, wealthy boards, and an extremely upscale audience. Would this fly, politically? I can just hear Lou Dobbs denouncing it.)