“It’s a travesty!”  “The arts are doomed!”  “The National Endowment for the Arts makes up a tiny fraction of the federal budget!”

Whew!  Everybody, take a deep breath; let’s not have a panic attack just yet.

The arts are an important part of any culture.  They inspire, they motivate, they provide a method of transcending cultural and linguistic barriers, that no political entity could ever hope to come close to.  In fact, for all intents and purposes, political entities are good at causing divisions between people.  Because of that, the arts would be better served if the government would remove itself from them.

In 1965, the National Endowment for the Arts was created.  It’s purpose was to provide government funding for worthy artistic endeavors.  At the time, it may have seemed to make sense, but as time goes on, the world changes.

Fast forward today, the technological explosion that began in the late 1970s with the advent of the personal computer has drastically changed our world forever.  In today’s world, the ability to share one’s artistic ability is only limited by their imagination.  From podcasting, to live streaming, the ability to create and share is greater than ever before.  However, the National Endowment for the Arts’ impact isn’t as much as one might think.  In the United States, the NEA and other related federal organizations account for 1 percent of all artistic funding.  1 percent.  If you add in state and local grants, it still doesn’t make up a large percentage of the funding.  The majority of the funding, comes from private sources.  In a recent article for Reason Magazine, Jacob Sullum put it this way

“So even if we arbitrarily exclude money-making enterprises from “the arts,” the describing and critiquing of society that Redford values hardly depend on federal largess—a good thing, since it seems unwise to make this subversive function contingent on the good will of politicians.”

Combined, the budgets of the NEA, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the National Endowment for the Humanities equals 0.02 percent of federal spending.  Going after these organizations would be like reducing the flow of a gushing fire hydrant by two or three drops.  It simply will not make any meaningful difference.  On the face of that, it would seem especially cruel to the “starving artists” to have that funding taken away.

“Oh whatever are we to do?”  “The market could never…”  Well just as soon as you say the market could never do something, it does just exactly that.  Never, ever underestimate the power of human beings to create and adapt to a constantly changing world.  In steps Fractured Atlas.  Fractured Atlas is a sort of private version of the NEA.  The organization’s mission statement reads– “Fractured Atlas empowers artists, arts organizations, and other cultural sector stakeholders by eliminating practical barriers to artistic expression, so as to foster a more agile and resilient cultural ecosystem.”  The organization is diverse in its membership, from single person endeavors, to large organizations.  That’s just one organization, and that doesn’t account for crowd funding potential, contributions from businesses, direct individual donations, etc.  It is private sources, not the government that makes up a vast majority of artistic funding in the US.  Private funding for the arts amounts to $13 billion per year, which is far larger than the NEA’s pitiful $146 million budget.”

Many in the artistic community however, long for the kind of federal support for the arts in Europe.  I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but that just isn’t going to happen.  No matter how much you write angry letters of protest, rant on social media, and complain out loud, the US government has determined that its resources are far better utilized bombing villages in the Middle East, and throwing people in rape cages for smoking a plant.

Furthermore, government funding the arts can open up a dangerous Pandora’s Box.  Nick Gillespie of Reason Magazine put it this way

“There’s at least a third reason to stop state funding of the arts, and it’s the one I take most seriously as a literary scholar and writer. In the 17th century, a great religious dissenter, Roger Williams (educated at Cambridge, exiled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony), wrote the first case for total separation of church and state in the English language. Forced worship, said Williams, “stinks in God’s nostrils” as an affront to individual liberty and autonomy; worse still, it subjugated theology to politics.

Something similar holds true with painting, music, writing, video and all other forms of creative expression. Forced funding of the arts—in whatever trivial amounts and indirect ways—implicates citizens in culture they might openly despise or blissfully ignore. And such mandatory tithing effectively turns creators and institutions lucky enough to win momentary favour from bureaucrats into either well-trained dogs or witting instruments of the powerful and well-connected. Independence works quite well for churches and the press. It works even more wonderfully in the arts.”

With the US government becoming increasingly centralized and totalitarian with each passing presidency, I don’t think asking for government is a good idea.  Imagine in the future you as an artist are trying to get some sort of a project going.  You approach a bureaucrat, with an example of what you would be doing.  The bureaucrat decides that it is not worth the blessings of the State, and furthermore makes a call to the local “Gestapo” branch to come and arrest you because your art does not paint “Grand Leader most benevolent, merciful, and wise” in the God-like stance they deserve.  Of course, we don’t live in that nightmarish scenario, but the part of the bureaucrat deciding what does, and does not receive funding still exists.  In addition, there seems to be a general desire and attempt by non-profit artists to remove themselves from the controls of the market, but that attempt can only last so long.

Take for example, symphony strikes.  In recent years, professional symphonic musicians have developed a sort of reputation for going on strike.  The reason of course, is always money (or lack thereof).  Managers looking at the budget, and not wanting to see the organizations they work for close up shop take a deep breath, and announce that there will need to salary cuts, or reductions in insurance in order to remain fiscally afloat.  The musicians, often times organized by a union then respond by going on strike.  They refuse to perform, until the orchestral management budges, and gives into their demands.

In someways, it’s understandable.  Orchestral musicians are some of the most talented, hardworking people out their, and I know, and have worked with several, and I wouldn’t be who I was today, if it weren’t for them.  However, one’s skills are only as valuable as the demand for them.  In 2008, Stanford Economist Robert J Flanagan produced a report entitled “Economic Environment of Symphony Orchestras.”  The report found a growing disparity between the costs of producing a performance, and the revenue earned in ticket sales.  The Minnesota Orchestra’s 2010-11 budget determined that just 33 percent of it’s revenue came from ticket sales, just to give an example.  This puts orchestral musicians in a trap.  As was mentioned earlier, the US government’s funding for the arts is very small compared to the amount of private donations.  In addition, the US government has determined that bombing Middle Eastern countries is more important (muh national security).  However, just because the majority of funding overall comes from private sources, does not mean that everything is hunk-dory.  A private organization/individual will only donate, so long as they view that as beneficial and worthwhile.  They attend performances, and what do they see?  Declining, and aging audiences.  They’re not stupid, and they can see the writing on the wall: “sooner or later, this organization is going belly-up, and I/we don’t think it would be worth donating too.”  It’s a shame, and to lay the blame on the market, and society in general is frankly dishonest.

A huge part of the problem has to do with how orchestra’s interact within audience members historically speaking.  It’s very stuffy.  (Never applaud between movements)!  Younger generations, who want to feel more connectivity are increasingly turned off by this, save for college music majors, but that’s a rather small number of individuals overall.  That doesn’t mean that young people don’t listen to classical music.  On the contrary, it is one of the fastest growing genres when it comes to downloads, streaming, and more traditional off-site methods of listening.  Of course, members of symphony orchestras, and other classical musicians have more recently taken a more lax attitude towards audience members in recent years in response to dwindling audience numbers, but when it comes to funding, classical music has attempted to maintain the same paradigm for years and years.

Often times, private sources use the fact that a symphony (or any other artistic endeavor) has the NEA as a sponsor listed as a reason for donating themselves (and quite generously).  To give an example, during the Clinton Presidency, the NEA decided to not renew funding for the Writer’s Center in Betheda, Maryland, on the part of the organization not doing enough “outreach.”  Director Allan Lecowitz pointed out the domino effect losing NEA funding had.  Major private foundations use NEA funding as a barometer for whether or not it is worth giving to an organization.  Even though the NEA’s funding may be small, it has an overwhelming effect on private funding, and this is a problem.  Just because some government bureaucrat doesn’t think an artistic organization should get the public’s money, does not in fact make that organization not worth giving to.

Before the NEA existed, there was still art, and donations to the art.  Andrew Carnegie, for example, used the money he made in the steel industry to build the world-famous Carnegie Hall, as well as several libraries in multiple cities.  Lawyer John Quinn frequently bankrolled authors such as James Joyce.  Quinn was even able to get a tariff on foreign works of art to be overturned in 1913.  The point being, there is a rich American tradition of philanthropic support from the private sector.  It’s a damn shame that today’s philanthropic successors will use the decisions of government bureaucrats as a basis for what they will and will not support.

In Europe on the other hand, that role has been handled by the state.  The emperors, princes, and dukes of Europe bankrolled the artists.  Today, while the monarchies of old have either been abolished or reduced to figureheads, the state still fills the role of supporting the arts.  However, countries in Europe lack the sheer diversity that America has, making decisions about government funding a bit easier.  Just because something seems to work in one place, does not mean it will work in another.  People are simply too varied for that to be possible.

The arts, as a key component to civilization, humanity, and life itself are far too important to entrusted to any government funding, no matter how small.