Growing the Pie

As noted by Culture Jock on Friday, Americans for the Arts announced some good news at the end of last week: “The House of Representatives voted 246 to 183 to pass the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The bill includes $50 million in direct support for arts jobs through the National Endowment for the Arts and language that would have prevented museums, theaters, and arts centers from receiving stimulus funds was removed.”

Here at Culture Shock, the knicker-twisting over federal arts funding left our knicker-covered parts raw. Nothing a little balm won’t soothe, but the chafing makes its presence known. Those of us toiling in the lettuce patches of culture were rightfully perturbed to have our work trivialized – as if we’re not doing “real jobs.” Next thing you know, some crazy politician will be claiming we’re not “real Americans!

While the immediate question of $50 million worth of stimulation may be settled, we must continue to gird up our loins with the belt of truth in defense of art and arts funding. So let’s get back to the question of advocacy.

In a recent post, Culture Shock contributor, Cynseattle, pointed readers toward a Chicago Tribune opinion piece in which Chris Jones states, “Too little attention has been paid to making the long-term political case that culture is important and accessible to ordinary people and thus worthy of financial support.”

The case for culture’s contribution to social, economic and personal well-being is well documented and has been artfully argued. Our friend, Tim DuRoche, for example, recently wrote a compelling case for the economic value of the arts; more than a dry case statement, Tim transforms statistical abstractions into examples from real life. You can read Tim’s letter to Senator John McCain over here at Art Scatter.

Thus, we have this argument:

Whereas culture is important in many ways; and,
Whereas culture is not as elitist as you think;
Therefore: Culture is worthy of financial support.

Sure, we need to keep pressing the need-based and value-based arguments, but is the problem that we haven’t shouted our case loudly enough? Do we need to strop our dulled campaign slogans to a keener edge? Should we be investing in more billboards, or filling the airwaves with our adjurations? Refrigerator magnets?

Here’s what I think: Arts advocacy has fallen short because we keep pressing a case that many of our political adversaries aren’t quibbling about.

Many or most of our opponents will concede that arts and culture are good for us, individually and collectively. Believe it or not, some stalwart fiscal conservatives don’t sneer at culture and spit on artists; they go to the opera, wander museum galleries, and know their derrières from their arrières when attending the ballet. Some of them even sit on the boards of arts organizations and foundations that make generous grants in support of culture. They agree that the arts can contribute to building a citizenry comprised of wise and nimble team-players who are ready to innovate our way into the global economy.

BUT (and I like big buts), that’s not their issue. Their problem with arts funding is that they don’t believe that government has a role in supporting the arts. That argument is based in one or more of the following beliefs:

1) The limits of government responsibility do not encompass cultural affairs.
2) Art happens – it always has and it always will, even without government support.
3) Art needs support, but that’s what the private sector is for.
4) Government intervention will hurt or hinder the arts.

For many conservatives, you can replace the word “art” in the preceding list with education, health care, nutrition programs, or any of a long list of public goods; after all, the desire for limited government is a huge part of what defines a conservative. (Some of our readers will say that I left out “pure evil” as part of that definition, but I’m trying to seem rational).

In the arts world, we might argue about which makes the strongest case for culture: That the arts have inherent value, or that they have utilitarian benefits. Put another way, should we support the arts because the arts are: (1) inherently sweet and delicious; or (2) packed full of fortifying nutrition? We rarely make the case for why an investment in all that yummy goodness should be a function of government—local, state or federal.

Perhaps it is time to stop declaiming the goodness of art and pay more attention to making the case for why government should (or must) have a role in supporting it. And let’s be careful to avoid tautologies: e.g., “Government should support the arts because … well, just because that’s what the government should do.”

We should try to explicate the unique role government can play in the arts economy. What can government do for the arts that the private sector either can’t or won’t?

Part of the answer may be that we need government to invest in activities that produce public goods which the private sector either can’t or won’t support; for example, ensuring broad access to culture for citizens who would otherwise not be able to afford to participate. An analogy might be the federal government’s investment in public education or rural electrification.

Another part of the answer may involve bricks and mortar—investing in our cultural infrastructure. Similar to building roads, levees and schools, perhaps the public sector is the only one that can muster the capital needed to build the physical infrastructure needed for cultural activities that serve the public. The government may also be the only sector that is able or willing to assume the risks involved in big cultural construction projects. Portland Center Stage’s Armory project, for example, was made possible by loan guarantees and tax breaks from the public sector (though it’s a shame that our local, state and federal governments couldn’t just hand over cash for that urban asset). If Portland had a “shovel ready” performance venue in the works right now, might that be a better use of economic stimulus funding than doling out a little bit of extra grant money to lots of arts organizations this year?

One more unique government role could be to serve as an arts incubator; for example, project grants from our own Regional Arts and Culture Council are often the first grant funding that emerging artists and organizations are able to secure, thus helping to leverage giving from private donors. Another government role could be cultural diplomacy--something I think we'll be seeing more of under an Obama administration.

Perhaps our readers will jump in with other suggestions, or point us to folks who have already presented the case for government’s unique role in the arts. (Sorry to keep highlighting “unique,” but that’s the concept I’m looking for).

I’ll close with a radical thought that may be a kick to the hornet’s nest: What if we combined our request for MORE government funding with an agreement to NARROW how that funding will be used? For example, what if we stipulate that federal funds will be directed toward subsidizing the construction of cultural facilities (libraries, arts centers, performing arts venues) only? If the federales were to underwrite more of a building’s construction, arts organizations could focus on raising private money for operations or endowments rather than capital.
Or is it time to fight against any compromises?


culturejock said...

How provocative, MTC! I too have felt some frustration that we in the arts community tend to talk a lot about why the arts are important, as if people didn't know that already, and less articulately about why government funding participation is appropriate and essential. But it's budget advocacy season NOW (at least at the local level), so I am anxious to hear what ideas are generated on this topic; perhaps some epiphany can be put to use (or at least tested) right away.

I do believe there is decent traction around your "incubator" argument. About 45 local arts organizations receive general support from RACC and the OAC each summer, which provides critical, unrestricted working capital when expenses are mounting but before single ticket revenues and new donations have come in (although subscribers and established donors have also theoretically re-upped their support by the summer as well). For many other organizations, when they propose an artistic project, it's often a RACC grant, a Cultural Trust grant, or an NEA grant that allows the project to move forward as planned. Many organizations will liken these grants the "Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval," and although I never really liked that term I understand that these grants have a proven power to unlock funding from other donors.

Then there are the economic benefits, which frankly I find relatively routine. (I could write you an economic impact report on the Red Dress Party, or perhaps even this blog, but that doesn't necessarily mean that government should fund these things.) But these reports do resonate with some elected officials because they demonstrate how government actually earns back its investment in various tax revenues that are generated by this industry -- so we have the arguments standing by for those who might be swayed.

Your infrastructure proposal/analogy is an interesting piece to ponder, although part of me feels that the reverse is true. Some cities invest heavily in bricks and mortar only to realize there is insufficient support for the arts organizations who are meant to inhabit these spaces. In some ways we have a similar problem with our own PCPA -- most of our arts organizations, collectively being only the 24th most publicly invested organizations in the country, aren't able to afford these facilities. I tend to get more excited about funding the WORK that arts organizations do, even if it's in makeshift venues, and letting them find the space they truly need through partnerships with the private sector. Although public support certainly played several critical roles in the Armory deal, and I do think the City should do more to ensure affordable spaces for artists AND organizaitons.

We could also talk about touting the arts as a SOLUTION for other community concerns. Sojourn's skills, for example, could have been (and might still be) helpful in determining whether to name a street for Cesar Chavez. PlayWrite uses theater as a tool for delinquent youth to teach them healthy forms of creative expression. Artmaking provides very real therapy for children with cancer. Kids with music training do better in school. The list goes on. Maybe we're not asking for a hand-out, maybe we're asking to be a key part of this City's (and this Country's) success story for the 21st Century, a story which is yet to be written.

I also think there comes a point at which public investment in the arts can become so significant that it creates radical new access to culture. Free operas in Italy, free museums in Washington DC, free admission to the Portland Art Museum once a week -- these things can only happen when the government decides to play this role as a service to its citizens, who, as we've already posited, really ARE a pack of cultural consumers.

MightyToyCannon said...

You have raised several cogent points CJ. Sorry to have them stuck in the comment section, rather than more prominently! I agree that we need to keep pressing the economic and social benefits of the arts--we can demonstrate that government funding at least has a positive ROI that goes well beyond the artists and arts patrons who get the direct benefit. Also, I use the physical infrastructure focus mostly as an example--my main point is that maybe we should recognize that government funding can't take care of every need.

MightyToyCannon said...

I haven't had time to digest, let alone summarize a couple of related articles I ran across today, so will just post links for the moment.

The first, by David Brewster at addresses how Washington State may address economic stimulus related to the arts:

Mr. Brewster refers to another interesting article by András Szántó discussing potential arts policy shifts under Obama:

The latter mentions former NEA-chair Bill Ivey, who has been influential in shaping Obama's arts policies, writing:

"Ivey is hardly alone in pushing beyond traditional notions of high culture. He represents a new school of arts-policy thinking that places value on hitherto underappreciated, amateur, community-based, digitally-mediated, often commercial arts—the kind of creative pursuits, in short, which most Americans enjoy. This broadening of perspective would constitute the biggest shift in policy since the implementation of large-scale cultural support in the post-war era."

Interesting stuff that starts to get at the question of what government's role should be in all this. I'll try to make sense of it all when my head is not completely stuffed up.

MightyToyCannon said...

MORE: I have to credit the Cultural Policy listserv, a handy digest of current cultural news that's put out by Americans for the Arts each week--it's a great resource for the lazy researcher and blogger like me.

In addition to the two articles I cited in the preceding comment, today's edition pointed me to a column by Greg Sandow in the Wall Street Journal, titled, "The Arts Need Better Arguments." After critiquing some of the flaws in the prevailing arts advocacy positions (particularly in the face of much more dire budget cuts), Sandow concludes:

"The arts are going to need a better strategy. And in the end it's going to have to come from art itself, from the benefits art brings, in a world where popular culture -- which has gotten smart and serious -- also helps bring depth and meaning to our lives.
That's the kicker: the popular culture part. Once we figure that out, we can leave our shaky arguments behind and really try to prove we matter."

Again, I'll try some interpretation of all this in later posts.

MightyToyCannon said...

Another: Tyler Green's arts blog, Modern Arts Notes, has some things to say about federal funding and arts advocacy a post titled, “Fifty million reasons that a 'victory' is a defeat.”

I seem to be using this comment section as a scratch pad with notes to myself for further development...

TDA said...

So forgive me, but a thought.
I too am totally frustrated and disgusted at the imbecelic language of the Coburn amendment and its inclusion in a stimulus package essential to help triage our failing economy after 8 years of Bush's financial vivisection of our country. But at the risk of being a victim blamer, I have to wonder if we arts organizations aren't the victim in this case, but really the General Motors. We all love the work we support and produce but when we're honest, and relieved from the incessant cheerleading we are called to do in our field, we all know that not all the work we create is artistically inspired. We know that duds happen, and often become an entire span of mediocrity and banal work. We know there are often many motives in play selection, dramatury, casting and direction that have nothing to do with a pure drive for artistic excellence but are directed by very human impulses:narcissism, favoritism, racism, sexism, ageism, pandering and incompetence. This is how bad art happens, how bad arts organizations happen. So let’s say it all together, sometimes you have to weed out the bad to save the good.
Perhaps it is a time for an artistic renaissance that is about demanding higher standards and greater rigor as well as dealing with the fundamental problem-we are using arts administration models from the 60’s to run the organizations of the future. And in our country’s older major arts organizations, the imprint of their founding at the turn of the century is at the heart of their ability to respond nimbly to the demands, desires and needs of a 2009 audience.
I’m not sure exactly what the answers are…but I feel a little like we arts administrators are all desperately trying to sell our audiences on how they need to stick with us, even though they can get better, cheaper entertainment well…anywhere. It’s like trying to convince Americans that they really all need to buy Chevy Cobalts to send the message that American cars are important. But most folks don’t want a Cobalt. And aren’t all of our artistic missions about connecting people with art-not the art we WANT to give them? Isn’t it our turn to budge, to evolve, to adapt, to listen, to work, to engage and to change? Let’s not be artistically and intellectually lazy enough to believe that the only art that can engage patrons on a broad level has to be so populist as to have no value or vision.

MightyToyCannon said...

Wow, TD -- now we're raising some big, big questions that are fascinating and worthy of discussion and vigorous debate. I'm not much of a sentimentalist when it comes to arts organizations--we do need to be nimble and willing to evolve, rather than fighting for survival simply out of a sense of nostalgia. (Lord knows, I'd love to have the '63 Impala that was the first car I learned to drive, but that doesn't mean Chevy should still be building them). Perhaps I'm a Pollyanna, but I can't help but think that we'll come out of all this financial crisis stronger -- as artists and arts administrators.

Holland Cotter covered this idea with regard to the visual arts in a NY Times article on Sunday, "The Boom is Over, Long Live the Arts," writing:

"Anyone with memories of recessions in the early 1970s and late ’80s knows that we’ve been here before, though not exactly here. There are reasons to think that the present crisis is of a different magnitude: broader and deeper, a global black hole. Yet the same memories will lend a hopeful spin to that thought: as has been true before, a financial scouring can only be good for American art, which during the present decade has become a diminished thing."