Lotteries should not be used to fund the arts

no way to fund the artsBlog neighbor Greg Sandow posts about the relationship between arts funding and gambling, especially regarding early Italian opera. It’s tongue in cheek, but he concludes:

For those without a sense of humor: I know very well that gambling raises moral questions, and legal questions, too, not to mention questions involving real estate. Where would the Met put its new casino? Where in the opera house would there be room enough? 

But let’s not forget that gambling — I’ll never call it “gaming,” its euphemistic marketing meme — has spread throughout the US, and that lotteries are an important source of state government revenue. And let’s also not forget that nonprofit arts institutions are, more and more, going down profit-making paths to fund themselves. And that casinos in Las Vegas and Atlantic City have been in the performance biz for years, offering glittering shows by superstars. Pavarotti sang in Atlantic City. So is gambling at the Met really so far-fetched?

I do have a sense of humor, and recognize a blog as a place to write something other than common wisdom (there’s no point in having a blog in the first place if not to introduce something new to the conversation). So I come not to criticize his post, but to use the chance to say something about gambling and the arts. Because it *is* used. Not so much in the US, but in the UK a significant portion of National Lottery profits are devoted to the arts, and the same is true in my homeland of Canada. Out here in Indiana the state runs a lottery as well.

State-run lotteries are a very regressive tax. The profits that the lottery firms generate, because they are state monopolies (I can’t just go out and be entrepreneurial, starting up my own private lottery), are the exact equivalent to a tax on the lottery sector. All evidence points to the fact that lower-income individuals spend a significantly higher proportion of their income on lotteries than others. If anyone wants to point to this as a “sin” tax, equivalent to the tax on cigarettes, note that (1) the government doesn’t run the tobacco companies, and (2) the government doesn’t actively try to encourage people to smoke. Lottery funded “scholarships”, like the HOPE in Georgia, represent transfers of income from poorer (lottery buying) to richer (college attending) counties. Given that arts advocates would love to shed the image that public funds for the arts benefit only an elite, one would think they would strongly resist funding by such regressive means.


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  1. John Federico says

    I’m with you, Michael. Nothing would represent a more egregious example of making a transfer from the 99% to the 1% than using lottery dollars to fund arts and culture. Now, if organizations want to promote small games of chance among their constituents — that might be a different story. I am even a little uncomfortable with the notion of sales tax dollars being used to fund the arts, although that’s the mechanism we have in place in Allegheny County where I live and work.

  2. Philip Sabransky says

    Off the backs of how many laborers in the bottom half of income earners do the “1 percent” make enough money to fund the arts? The numbers are obscene. Will lottery players and gamblers still play if the profits fund the arts? Why would that stop them. Will gambling still exist no matter who divvies up the profits? The answers are well known and obvious. So the merits of using this or that funding dollar can appear to be debated but in the end we don’t really know the origin of most funding dollars. To make the arts available to all income brackets is the true challenge. We should not get caught up in where funding originates. We should be happy to find any source of funding. Dont let personal tastes and prejudices, unconscious bias or overly altruistic feelings and murky statisics eliminate a source of funding. Any dollar that finds its way to funding the arts is a good and useful one. And let the arts open to all income brackets.

  3. says

    There is something more insidious about Lottery Funding. Because, at least in the UK around the Millennium, the Lottery encouraged arts groups and municipalities to increase the size of their art spaces or to build new arts spaces. What the Lottery did not do was to provide continual ongoing operating funding once these new buildings were completed; and we know that new buildings cost more to operate, require more expensive productions, and present management challenges that are distracting to leadership.

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