Should Taxpayers Subsidize the Arts?



Should the federal government subsidize the arts? I have pondered the question ever since 1989, when, with many other residents of Washington, D.C., I went to see an exhibit of Robert Mapplethorpe’s obscene photographs which had been cancelled by the Corcoran Exhibit for fear of having federal funds cut off by enraged congressional conservatives. At the entrance to the exhibit, which was hosted instead by the Washington Project for the Arts, a group was collecting signatures for a petition saying that all American artists had the right to taxpayer subsidies, with no strings attached. I offered my signature, but only on condition that the petition organizers in turn provide me with another petition, attesting that I was an American artist and thus entitled to taxpayer money. My offer was not taken up.

Controversies over public funding of controversial art like the Mapplethorpe exhibit have long been out of proportion to the actual amounts of money that are involved. According to Daniel Reid in a 2013 Yale Journal of Law and the Humanities essay entitled “An American Vision of Federal Arts Subsidies: Why and How the U.S. Government Should Support Artistic Expression,” the role of the federal government in art funding is quite limited:

Total federal arts spending is itself a relatively small source of arts funding: it accounts for only 9% of financing for nonprofit arts organizations in the United States, with state and local funding making up an additional 4%. (Private donations account for 43% of all such financing, and earned income makes up the remaining 44%).

Civic art — war memorials and other monuments, decorative sculptures and fountains in public parks, public buildings like state capitols and county courthouses — has always been accepted as legitimate by Americans. What controversies there have been have involved matters of style.

From the 18th until the mid-20th century, the favorite style for civic art and architecture was one or another version of classicism. Classical styles appealed more to members of the elite with a few years of Latin education than to the less-educated majority. Horatio Greenough’s 1841 statute of George Washington, intended for the U.S. Capitol rotunda, appalled or amused citizens who did not understand the neoclassical convention of heroic nudity and saw merely a half-naked old man. The statue, lampooned as “Washington Reaching For His Clothes,” was exiled from its intended place of honor and now can be found in the National Museum of American History.

In the 20th century, avant-garde modernism in the form of glass-box architecture and abstract painting and sculpture replaced Greco-Roman classicism as the preferred style of the American elite, though most members of the public retain more traditional tastes. In the 1980s, Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial, in the form of a low black wall sunk into the ground, was acclaimed by the cognoscenti but despised by many veterans and much of the public, including the populist billionaire and later presidential candidate Ross Perot. As a compromise, a realistic bronze sculpture by Frederick Hart, entitled The Three Soldiers, was added to the memorial compound, creating a permanent symbol of the clash of egghead and middlebrow tastes in art.

These controversies about the style of civic art and architecture have been minor in comparison to the debate about whether the federal government should provide artists with money for work that is not traditionally civic in nature. The Federal Arts Project of the Works Progress Administration was created in 1935 to subsidize unemployed artists during the Great Depression. While much of the funding went to civic purposes, like murals in county courthouses and other buildings, the federal government also supported artists who created easel paintings, crafts, theater costumes, and other items. Congress abolished the controversial program in 1943 after less than a decade.

A generation passed before Congress revived federal arts funding with the establishment in 1965 of both the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. In “An American Vision of Federal Arts Subsidies,” Reid provides evidence that two presidents who were social and geographic outsiders — Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon — sought to win over at least some patrician Northeastern establishment allies by supporting federal arts programs. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. told LBJ that support for the creation of the National Endowment for the Arts “can strengthen the connections between the Administration and the intellectual and artistic community — something not to be dismissed when victory or defeat next fall will probably depend on who carries New York, Pennsylvania, California, Illinois, and Michigan.”

Reid also quotes a memo from Leonard Garment to President Nixon:

By providing substantially increased support for cultural activities, you will gain support from groups which have hitherto not been favorable to this administration. … We are talking about the vast majority of theatre board members, symphony trustees, museum benefactors, and the like. … It is well for us to remember that these boards are made up, very largely, of business, corporate and community interests.

From their inception, the NEA and the NEH have been plagued by ambiguity about their missions. Is their main purpose curatorial, supporting museums, symphonies, libraries, and other cultural institutions? Or is it to support individual artists?

A case in favor of government financial support for individual artists and writers, for projects other than civic architecture or decoration, is difficult to make and vulnerable to objections by libertarians and egalitarians alike.

The NEA Literature Fellowships program, for example, offers $25,000 grants in poetry and prose (fiction and creative nonfiction) to “published creative writers” in order to “enable the recipients to set aside time for writing, research, travel, and general career advancement.”

Why should America’s hard-pressed tax-payers pay for this? Certain kinds of writing are favored above others — poetry, prose fiction, and creative nonfiction, but not screenplays or country music song lyrics or uncreative nonfiction (whatever that is — perhaps this essay is an example). The grants are limited to already-published authors, so no new talent is being discovered and publicized. “Them that has, gets,” as the saying goes.

And the NEA grants to writers are implicitly “classist,” as well. Why should writers get $25,000 for “travel, and general career advancement” but not janitors, or home health aides, or car mechanics, all of whom could use the money more than “creative writers,” a group drawn mostly from the upper middle class and the rich? And $25,000 is well above the annual income of a full-time worker in the U.S. who earns the minimum wage, an annual income around only $14,000. A single NEA literature fellowship, divided in two, could support two poor Americans for most of a year.

I should make it clear that I do not oppose nonprofit funding of poets, novelists, and writers of creative nonfiction. If institutions or rich individuals want to play Maecenas to talented writers, more power to them. But in America’s traditional division of labor among the public sector, the private sector and the nonprofit sector, patronizing the next Horace or Vergil or Sappho seems like something that the nonprofit sector can do quite well without aid from the public sector, other than indirect subsidies in the form of tax breaks for philanthropic giving.

It might seem that direct federal financial support of cultural institutions like museums is more defensible than giving money to already-published novelists and poets. But if those cultural institutions are chiefly patronized by the social elite — the Metropolitan Opera or Kennedy Center, say, as opposed to the mall cineplex movie theater or the Grand Ole Opry — then it is reasonable to ask why the tax-payers are being billed for the recreational and cultural activities of the elite. Why not let the disproportionately-wealthy people who enjoy those institutions pay for them?

Here is a hypothetical example. Imagine that a young tech entrepreneur, Nerdly Nebbish, sells an app for generating comic insults and becomes a billionaire at 28. Nebbish buys a palatial compound in Aspen and devotes some of the rooms of his mansion to his ever-growing hoard of Burning Man art and memorabilia, which he shows off to his rich Aspen neighbors to impress them with how cool he is.

Running out of room, young Nebbish builds a Burning Man Art Museum on a strip of property adjacent to his estate. The visitors who go to see the collection in the museum are, by and large, the same rich Aspen neighbors.

Question for the class: Should Nerdly Nebbish’s Burning Man art collection, now that it is housed in a separate museum instead of his mansion, be defined as a cultural institution worthy of taxpayer subsidies? For that matter, should Nerdly Nebbish qualify for personal tax benefits by donating his Burning Man collection to the museum he created?

Discuss among yourselves. •

Feature image courtesy of StreetsofWashington via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Michael Lind is a contributing writer of The Smart Set, a fellow at New America in Washington, D.C., and author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States.


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  • Your question misses the substance that overall this article fails to address in more in depth terms. What of the art itself in Nerdly Nebbish’s museum? Is the art such that it would be a great benefit to the public consciousness, psyche, advancement and enjoyment if it were to be brought to the world as a public collection of a once private collector? The Frick was once a small, private collection – now public and houses many important pieces for public edification. The Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, the Dr. Barnes collection in Philly (though that’s an odyssey on it’s own), the Isabella Gardner collection in Boston – I could go on – these were all private collections moved at one time or another in one way or another to a separate space (sometimes not, sometimes that space was then opened to the public) that I think today have shown without a doubt the merit you ask to be debated about public funding of the arts. These institutions, cultural centers, are invaluable to the public because of one thing – the art. The question isn’t ‘are the arts, private artists in particular, worthy of public money?’ because YES, yes they are, the question is, how do you go about choosing who becomes the chosen. The arts education in general in the US is (to make a grand understatement) horribly lacking. If you are not involved in the arts you haven’t a clue how the art world (dis)functions. How connections often times are really all that matters. What school you went to, what other artist’s you’ve banded together with, who your parents know. That’s how many artists get ahead today. Vision, talent, and skill sometimes fall by the wayside. So yeah, when you mentioned how the writers were chosen for the NEA Literature Fellowships – that is exactly where the focus should lie. Not in the ‘if’ but the ‘how.’ If more people were educated, involved, and cared about the arts, better art and artists would be funded that could better contribute to a more whole, shared conversation on the arts. And as far as the issue of personal tax benefits: If the collector has the vision, pours in the resources, and does the work to put together a collection that will, hopefully in perpetuity, benefit the public in the subject of art – why not? Their cause is worthy – the arts matter.

  • What a silly question. Taxpayers should only subsidize the job creators, you know, like big defense companies or oil companies. Fuck the arts.

  • If public funding for the arts is erased then we’ll see ticket prices increased along with low/middle class blockbuster shows of boring caliber. Then will come private museums to inflate the price of their own collections supporting the elitist commercial art market. The non funded experimental art is driven underground or to places that can support it- but maybe then its radicality will be increased creating something progressive while the developers will be happy because then they can gentrify where ever the artists went.

  • This article is a piece of drek. From paragraph one, “Robert Maplethorpe’s obscene photographs”, through the end Lind’s opinion is clear. It is biased and, frankly, ignorant. He says that janitors, home health aides, and car mechanics need money more than creative writers who are a group “drawn mostly from the upper class and the rich.” Oh really? According to North Carolina State University, the average starting salary for an undergraduate creative writing major was $37,154, as of July 2010. ( I question even that amount.

    As a visual artist I don’t even average $20,000 per year off my paintings, and that’s with gallery representation. Where does Lind get off? There was a time when the creative types in a society were regarded as productive members. Creative thinking is an integral component to science, math, and other “hard” disciplines. Pity any society in which artists become extinct.

    This kind of writing is out of place on a site that terms itself “smart.”

  • I concur with some others who have submitted responses to this article. There are many cultural workers, who are diligent and worthy of public support. Without the creative class in this country, where would we be? We make art for public places, inspire and promote creative thinking and understanding in a myriad of ways.

    I could go on and on about the arts, education and critical thinking, which in my mind are all linked and the need to support the arts is essential part of a blended/balanced and forward thinking society, but it would result in another article. I may consider writing on that will certainly counter the sentiment of Lind.

    In reference to public agencies that are federally funded such as the NEA and related granting entities could serve the public and the arts community better, if they were more transparent in their selection of panelists and establishment of policy.

  • This author seems to have little appreciation for the arts and evidently saw no reason to even briefly take a look at the situation in the many other countries where government support for the arts has long been much more robust.

  • Of course, if only the wealthy support the Nerdly Nebbish Museum of Burning Man Art, only the wealthy will ever get to see it. And they can already afford to go to Burning Man itself.

    Most of us know this very well already. Surely Michael Lind has heard that argument as well. Does he just not get it?

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