Love of art and love of place

Jack's Creek, Clay Co, KYThose of us who teach classes in cultural policy at some point always engage our students in the fundamental question: why is government in the business of subsidizing the arts? Only when we have really thought about the ends of the policy can we think clearly about the best means to those ends. And there might be many: conservation of cultural traditions; cultural institutions as local amenities for current and possibly future residents; tourism; instilling civic values through the arts, for example. Here I want to focus on just one: making the enjoyment of the arts more affordable for those with low incomes, those who can attend museums or performances if the organizations are subsidized, and in turn charge less for admission, but who would not be able to afford attendance if audiences were asked to bear the full cost.

Who could object to providing these cultural benefits to those with low incomes? Here is a possible objection: it is all very well to want to assist the poor. But subsidizing this or that thing that some poor people might enjoy is not as effective as just giving poor people more money, say through tax credits for themselves and their dependents, or not asking them to pay income tax at all. That way, if they happen to want to buy tickets to the symphony they can do so, but if they want to spend their income other ways they can do that too. As Christopher Blattman recently put it in the New York Times, ‘Let them eat cash.’ A subsidy to the local orchestra to provide cut-price tickets will only benefit a few individuals (put aside for the moment that many of the people who benefit from cheap tickets don’t need help at all), and the poor who don’t happen to like classical music gain nothing from the expenditure.

Cultural subsidies help but a small segment of the lower-income population, namely those who really enjoy the art provided by the subsidized organizations – visual art, classical music and opera, theatre. Can this be justified?

I have worked on this question for many years, still trying to formulate a satisfactory answer. And I thought about it more this past week on the basis of an article that appeared in the Sunday New York Times, Annie Lowrey’s ‘What’s the matter with eastern Kentucky.’ The article is very worth reading, even though the pith of it is straightforward: these very poor counties are never going to have much in the way of economic development, but there are people there whose families have lived in the region for generations – do you continue to subsidize their living in their hometowns, or incentivize moving to places where there are jobs? For some people, the salient issues in where to live come down to job opportunities, cost of living, climate, amenities, culture. For others, ‘home’ is the salient issue, trumping all other concerns – where they have always lived is part of their identity, more important than income or anything else.

Should public policy treat the attachment to home as something to be supported, even at significant cost, even if it only applied to some people but not all? In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, economist Edward Glaeser took some heat for suggesting that the best policy response, taking as given the desire to provide help to displaced New Orleans residents, would be to give them cash to move elsewhere rather than try to rebuild a city whose economic prospects were never going to be that good. Should love of place be taken as something more important than cost-effective cash transfers? Margaret Jane Radin suggested that rent controls – long an Econ 101 staple example of bad economic policy – could be justified if we recognized that allowing long-term residents to stay in their homes – not ‘apartments’, but ‘homes’ in a deeper sense – mattered as something more than just making sure everyone had a roof over their heads, the location of which was unimportant (gated JSTOR link to Philosophy and Public Affairs here). Attachment to place is not just another ‘preference’ over goods and services – it is a part of identity that policy cannot deem unimportant.

And so, back to the subsidy of the local orchestra. There will be a part of the population, a small one, that has the love of music as a part of who they are, it defines them. Is there room then, in public expenditure, to take special account of this group of music lovers, subsidize their attendance at concerts, even though it is a benefit that will only accrue to a few?

And if we answer ‘yes’ to that question, where do we ‘draw the line’? Should policy respect love of place, love of music and art, attachment to language as identity (the rationale given for the protection of the French language in Quebec, for example), but not, say, love of spending all day skateboarding? What are the things that truly matter for identity?

There isn’t an analytic answer to these questions; the response depends on what we think we know about identity, and will differ from culture to culture. What we can do, though, is to see if we can embed some of our discussion of arts policy into the general framework of the role of the state and what we owe our fellow citizens, especially those lacking much economic power.

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  1. says

    You begin with a somewhat loaded premise: that subsides make tickets affordable for the poor. In reality, the purpose of subsidies is to make tickets affordable and available for the middle class. The average ticket price at the Met, for example, is about $160 or $320 for a couple. Middle class patrons cannot attend the opera in decent seats and on a regular basis at that cost.

    And second, many middle class and even rich people can’t attend the opera because the vast majority of American cities do not even have a company, or one that only does a smattering of performances per year.

    Just as we fund public schools, universities, and libraries, governments work for the common good according to widely recognized ideals which includes supporting the arts. In fact, the USA is the only developed country in the world that lacks comprehensive public funding systems for the arts. By international standards, it is a form of political radicalism unique to the USA. Why not start the discussion from that premise?

    • says

      Thank you for your comment. I will make a few points. First, opera is not the measure I would choose in this discussion – it is a very expensive form of production, and not necessarily the most relevant. The Met is a special case, world-class production in a major cultural center. Second, the US does *not* lack public funding for the arts. It is highly decentralized, but that is only appropriate in a country so large and diverse. Third, my post is not about funding of the arts generally, but more specifically about arts spending as it constitutes a benefit to those at the low-end of the income scale. It is not a discussion specific to US policy, it is a discussion about a particular way of thinking about arts spending.

      • says

        One could apply my arguments orchestras as well, which are less expensive than opera. We only have a handful of opera companies. The prices at all of them are fairly similar to the Met’s — not as expensive, but close to it.

        In the USA, the federal government, states and localities appropriated a combined $1.14 billion to the arts in FY2013, for a total per capita investment of $3.60. See:

        Total German government arts spending is 15 billion dollars, which is $183 per person. The most recent documentation I can find is here. Open the menu for 2009 to see the most recent German stats:

        That’s $183 vs. $3.60. Per capita government arts spending in Germany is thus 51 times higher than in the USA. The results are obvious. Germany, for example, has 47 cities in the top 100 for opera performances per year. The USA, with four times the population, has 3. There are several European countries that spend much more per capita on the arts than even Germany. The above table also shows that German funding is highly decentralized. 87% comes from the state and municipal levels.

        The contrasts between these numbers seem to say some very clear things about “a particular way of thinking about arts spending.” My thought is to start with objective facts, then explore the philosophies behind them.

  2. says

    I don’t think we can really say that the government is even in the business of supporting the arts. A $153 million dollar NEA budget isn’t supporting much of anything and even if we look at what the states budget we should ask the question -What do we mean by “the arts?”
    As an artist one thing I do know “the arts” doesn’t mean “the artists”. According to the Pew less that 1/5 of the monies that states spend on the arts ends up as programing. The rest goes to run the organizations that claim to support “the arts”.

  3. David Anchel says

    It is interesting that several of my friends and I were recently discussing this. We were all in a small travelling opera company, Turneau Opera, and sang in eastern Kentucky, I said, “We drove through eastern Kentucky to sing in a high school auditorium. I have traveled to many foreign countries but it is so embedded in my memory how poor this area was. It was the most depressed area I have ever seen. Rusting cars in streams by the side of these rural roads. Shacks where peopled lived that you could see through the walls, hub caps used to block the holes. We performed Traviata or Fledermaus in English with whatever piano we found and people came and saw opera for the first time and enjoyed it..

    My experience was that it was certainly worth it to bring music and in this case opera to one of the poorest areas of our country, just from the response.

  4. says

    We spend too much energy trying to justify public funding of the arts on economic grounds. Once government goes beyond safety, transportation and the prevention of starvation as its mission, the arts become a possibility. If a community will fund golf courses, swimming pools and tennis courts for whatever (probably small) percentage of its citizens actually use them, then there is no reason to exclude arts centers and theaters. My guess is that a huge amount of government expenditure transfers wealth up the line to real estate development companies, exporting corporations, energy companies and the like. To provide amenities such as opera and music that might be disproportionally utilized by the upper class citizens but are still available to and somewhat utilized by the less fortunate is not a contradiction to anything else government does. Is it?


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