Sen. Tom Coburn, R-OK: No stimulus funds for the arts or “zero-gravity chairs“
As the mega-billion economic stimulus package nears a vote in the Senate (with the final version to be determined by private House-Senate negotiation), it’s beginning to look like the arts will be among many worthy supplicants sacrificed to placate Republican critics of wasteful spending.
Both bills still, at this writing, contain $150 million for capital projects to improve the Smithsonian Institution’s facilities. But only the House bill includes $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts. According to a report by Michael Kranish in the Boston Globe, Bill Ivey, leader of President Obama‘s arts transition team and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, had “asked the Obama administration during a meeting on Jan. 14 for several
hundred million dollars in arts funding in the stimulus plan, but won
backing only for the $50 million.”
Now even that appears to be in jeopardy. What’s more, a recent overwhelming vote (73 to 24) in the Senate on Friday passed an amendment against applying stimulus money to museums, theaters or art centers (among other unfundables).
All of this leads me to believe that the arts are not going to be much stimulated by the stimulus. Even New York Sen. Charles Schumer, a savvy political strategist (but a usually reliable arts supporter), voted yes on the pernicious Senate amendment.
When I saw the first iteration of the culture-cutting amendment, it was so silly that I didn’t think anyone, let alone a seasoned legislator, could take it seriously. Concocted by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-OK, it originally said:
None of the amounts appropriated or otherwise made available by
this [economic stimulus] Act may be used for any casino or other gambling establishment,
aquarium, zoo, golf course, swimming pool, stadium, community park,
museum, theater, arts center, or highway beautification project,
including renovation, remodeling, construction, salaries, furniture,
zero-gravity chairs, big screen televisions, beautification, rotating
pastel lights, and dry heat saunas.
That sounded to me like going off the deep end of the unfunded swimming pool.
But I guess the “zero-gravity chair” and “rotating pastel lights” lobbyists were effective, because that and everything else after the words “beautification project” got deleted from the version of the amendment actually approved by the Senate.
To understand the thinking (or lack thereof) behind this bit of legislative legerdemain, let’s go to the Congressional Record, which quotes the amendment’s sponsor, Sen. Coburn:
I am not necessarily against those [museums, art centers, theaters, etc.], but if we
are going to spend money, we ought to spend money on the highest
priority things first, not the finer things that we can’t afford.
We cannot afford to spend a penny on a museum right now
with the trouble we are in. We cannot afford to spend a penny on a golf
course with the trouble we are in. We cannot afford to spend a penny on
theaters or art centers or highway beautification. Those are not a
priority. Plus, most of those won’t generate near the jobs as if we
were spending it on something more substantive….We are not borrowing. No, we are stealing this money from
Why the Smithsonian’s funding survived this grandchild-protection amendment is anyone’s guess. The deteriorating facilities of the D.C. museums are just down the road from the Capitol, so the Senators may have some firsthand knowledge of its worth and pressing needs. The Smithsonian’s museums, unlike others, are substantially funding by Congress. But there’s no good reason why they should be uniquely privileged in the stimulus package. What’s good for Washington would also be good for Los Angeles.
Maybe museums need to organize a full-court press on the legislators who represent them, with an eye to influencing the House-Senate conferees. But maybe it’s already too late.
In light of this delicate political moment, the symposium planned for this Thursday and Friday by the Philadelphia Institute of Contemporary Art, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of its great Mapplethorpe show, “The Perfect Moment,” is ill-timed. That’s the exhibition that ignited a firestorm of damaging political controversy, which ultimately led to the imposition of “decency standards” on federal
If we’re going to try to put that behind us and seek increased NEA funding as well as a restoration of artists fellowships, this is a really “Imperfect Moment” to rub the past Culture Wars in legislators’ faces. The symposium will be a reunion of many of the anti-censorship protagonists—both artists and museum administrators—from those tumultuous times.
Don’t get me wrong: I think the ICA symposium is a worthy and engaging enterprise and I’m on the side of the particants. But this is no time to remind the cultural curmudgeons in Congress of all the reasons why they became uncomfortable two decades ago with appropriating federal funds for the arts.
For the texts of the House and Senate economic stimulus bills, go here, click on “HR1: The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009,”
then click on “Text of Legislation,” then click on “H.R.1.EH” for the
bill passed in the House and on H.R.1.AS for the Senate version. You can do a search on “National Endowment for the Arts” in the House bill, and “Smithsonian” in both bills, to find the relevant provisions.
UPDATE: ArtsJournal blogger Richard Kessler, executive director of The Center for Arts Education, describes today, in his Dewey21C blog, the probable impact (or lack thereof) of the stimulus bill on education.