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For Art’s Sake: In Defense of Public Funding

When I was in college my student ID granted me free admission to the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Afternoons, when I had a bit of free time, I would walk over from my college, up the stairs, past Rodin’s The Thinker, through the heavy art deco doors, past the suits of armor from Europe’s Renaissance, under Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith and Maidservent With the Head of Holofernes, through the Rivera court with its familiar murals honoring the auto tradesmen who made the city great, and round the corner to the gallery where the Greek and Roman Classical Art was housed during the museum’s renovations. There, in the middle of the room, was Torso of Apollo, Roman copy of a Greek original, probably from the school of Praxiteles. I can’t tell you how many times I have drawn that torso. There was this bench, just behind it. And what a behind, my friends, what a behind. The museum was were I went to surround myself with the talent of ages and try and absorb a little for myself.

Fine art at it’s finest.

Now, the museum may have to close if a new millage isn’t passed, millage that would grant free admission to all residents of the counties taxed, and the amount taxed per household was likened by one county executive to being the price of “a bad day at Starbucks.” Yet there are people honestly arguing against it because they either don’t understand that a publicly owned museum might need public funding (which it is getting none of right now), or they honestly cannot see the value in having the second largest municipally owned art museum in the nation open and readily accessible to the public who own it.

But this seems to be the direction a lot of budget discussions all over America are headed in. Everyone is looking to cut spending and the arts seem to be a favorite for the chopping block. Romney wants to defund PBS and NPR if he is elected, and the House GOP has just created a new budget bill that would do the same (bonuses: it also would take out Americorps and Planned Parenthood). But after all, we need to save money, and budget cuts need to be made. The arts are a luxury item and we simply need to quit paying for them until we can afford them again, right?

No. Not right. Not right at all. This isn’t the cable bill, where you can turn it off, and when you are ready, turn it back on again. You quit funding the arts now and they will be gone when you want them back. They will move on to better, more welcoming environments, and they will take their friends, small business, young workers, and good society, with them. And the arts, despite first appearances, are not a luxury. Art is a massive part of how we communicate. Its presence in a society makes the society more desirable. There is a reason we surround ourselves with it, day and night. Art says something to us about who we are, as individuals, as cities, as counties, as nations. We really don’t want to be the country with nothing creative to say.

Let private funding handle it, then. The arts should be able to turn a profit if they are so valuable.

No, that will not work either. Private funding does handle most of art. And lo and behold, most art serves those with the money to fund it. We have a wealth of art for the old white man. And that is where public funding has to step in–to give voice to those with something to say that doesn’t follow the narrative of the man with all the money, to give audience to those who would otherwise be too disenfranchised to reach for it. The money that NPR and PBS get from the federal government mostly goes to the poor and rural stations that can’t get endowments from wealthy patrons. We need publicly funded art to allow us to speak and listen across class lines.

I could give numbers. Tell you about how small businesses benefit from a strong arts presence in a community or of tourism dollars, or speak to you about return on investment. I could point out how little we spend on the arts (and it really is little), and how cutting that funding wouldn’t give us significant extra to work with. Tell all about how this really is not at all financially irresponsible and a brilliant investment of taxpayer money. It isn’t the point I am trying to make, though.

We need to support the creative voice of our society because it makes us stronger. It breaks down walls. It advances education. It inspires us to be proud of where we are from. We need to do it as a group, as a people, to make sure that the arts are accountable. That the arts truly tell the story of all the people they speak for. We, each and every one of us, should be invested in what the arts are saying, because they will remember us to the future. Let’s be remembered well.

By Opifex

Opifex is a former art student, unrepentant nerd, and occasional annoying liker of things before they were cool. She keeps two sets of polyhedral dice in her purse, in case the first set stops being lucky. That's kind of how she rolls.

12 replies on “For Art’s Sake: In Defense of Public Funding”

I’m glad you addressed the “if it’s valuable why can’t it support itself” argument. A lot of things I love would not sustain themselves without some amount of public funding and/or enormous amounts of donor money. Sure, the biggest of our arts initiatives might survive, like say the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, but what about all the local Shakespeare in the Parks programs, or programs that send public school kids to the theater in their actual cities? Could the arts community in a single city privately support the opera, the ballet, an art museum, a culture museum, the libraries, book readings, the symphony, and the theater? I don’t know. I like all of those things, but I can’t afford to go to them that much, certainly not enough to keep them in business. And if a city can only sustain say one theater, the kind of work that will be produced is, as you say, not the experimental or innovative or minority-driven work of new playwrights, but old standbys sure to keep the theater in business. That’s not what an arts community is about, at least not solely. You need to be able to support some strange and new things for the arts to continue to flourish and for new people to find creative artistic outlets.

Oh god yes. Whenever anyone complains about Hollywood lacking creativity, I have to point out that is not Hollywood’s problem. The problem Hollywood has is that it is now to expensive to make a flop movie and no one is willing to risk backing a project that breaks out of the tried and true formula for success. It would be so very sad to star seeing that happen to all of art.

The cutting of public funding to these institutions is problematic in that it denies everyone the access to the arts. It would take it back to a time when only the extremely wealthy could afford these things, and it ascribes ownership to something that isn’t meant to be owned by one person, but is supposed to be there for everyone to enjoy.

The potential defunding of PBS and NPR is particularly frightening because of the same threat.  These organizations provide a service to our country just as the military does: they offer an avenue for people to learn and encourage them to broaden their perspectives and seek things out for themselves.  Which, to make a long story short, is the extreme opposite of what those who would like defund these things would  like to see.

Great post!

Conservatives get very excited about defunding PBS and NPR, which means politicians spend a ridiculous amount of time on it given the miniscule portion of the budget that goes to them.

I do have mixed feelings about NPR. It sometimes strikes me as a bit snobby and smug, and more East Coast than “national,” but I’m an infrequent listener, so I could be totally wrong.

And as a poet, I don’t know how I feel about NEA grants for poets, either. Almost nobody likes to read poetry, so should anyone have to pay to support poets, who can certainly write while holding down a job? Frank O’Hara wrote a lot of his best poems on his lunch hour. I don’t think that the quality of American poetry got any better since they started giving NEA grants in 1965. Don’t get me wrong, if I get enough publications and honors to be eligible for one, I would apply. If they’re giving money away, they may as well give it to me. But I’m not sure they should give NEA grants to writers. For visual artists, it makes more sense to me. Their materials cost a lot of money.

I know I don’t have typical liberal views on this, and I hope people will be polite in disagreeing. In general, I am for arts funding! I don’t know how you have a proper society otherwise.

90% of what I listen to on NPR is Prairie Home Companion, Car Talk, and What Do You Know. None of those have ever seemed particularly snobby to me. I also really like Science Fridays. That said, I don’t listen to their news all that often, so I can’t speak to that. And the real problem I have with cutting the government funding for NPR and PBS isn’t that it would force them to close down completely, but it would likely cause them to have close their poor and rural stations. It puts up a very, “Community art is only for the nice communities,” attitude which is way more snobby than  NPR being East Coast centric.

Individual artist grants are another kettle of fish. The NEAs Art Works grants are focused on artists and projects that are benefiting their communities directly and I am all for that. Their Fellowships that don’t have the community emphasis I’m a little more leery of, if only because I see a lot of those who get fellowships falling into the same category of person (middle aged poetry professors). There’s some room for reform there, methinks. This, for me, was more about the grand infrastructures of art, which a community needs to support.

Yeah, the community-oriented grants seem great, but as you said, it’s usually professors and people who already have a steady stream of income getting the poetry fellowships. It seems silly to me.

I think I don’t love NPR personally, and that colors my opinion. I don’t see it as community art. But I certainly don’t feel strongly about it. Like, when it didn’t get defunded a few years ago, I was happy that my friends were happy about it.

And I think if we don’t fund museums and theatres and music and the like, we’ll turn into a nation of blithering idiots.

Part of the idea for writers, like a State poet laureate or an NEAH recipient getting a grant that enables them to not write at lunch, is that they can do more community outreach (or not–depending on the grant it’s not required as far as I know) and do other things related to arts education. I know a person who was in consideration to be the poet laureate of his state and he had to put together ideas for state poetry involvement and children’s poetry literacy and local involvement initiatives, which were part of the consideration process. When he writes after work, sure he can produce books, but he can’t do those other things, or travel to readings, or be as active in a community of writers. So I think having that grant money can be hugely valuable to the community and to particular writers, but I don’t think any given writer NEEDS such a grant to produce good work.

Poet laureate is a job though, a fellowship from the NEA is not. I would have a lot more warm fuzzies about them if they weren’t going in an overwhelming majority to poetry professors, and instead were going to people who didn’t have poetry as a job already. I don’t think we need to do without them, just take a hard look at how we distribute them.

Oh goodness. Even the suggestion of cuts to funding horrifies me. Most galleries have free admission and well, they’re a form of library, aren’t they? We have the opportunity to enjoy (most) books without a charge and for me, the same applies to art. They’re such an important resource and to cut funding can only do harm. What Romney’s planning is nothing short of atrocious – the arts are not a luxury.

Then again, where some have churches, I have galleries, which perhaps goes some of the way to why I feel the way I do.

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