Yesterday, Kansas Governor Brownback signed an executive order to abolish the state-supported Kansas Arts Commission. On the heels of the news of that decision, a plea from Americans for the Arts informed me that proposed federal budget cuts have put the NEA on the chopping block
What is befuddling to most artists is why, in a bloated and inflated budget, something as financially insignificant as the arts is one of the first budget line-items marked through with the red pen. Less than 1% of an American individual’s yearly tax bill is spent on the arts. Way less than 1%, in fact. If the itemized tax receipt example that has been floating around on the interwebs is accurate, of the some $5,400 taxes that a person who earns $34,000 a year pays, only a quarter of those taxes goes to the arts. And when I say “a quarter” I mean “25 cents.” And, in fact, one penny less than that. This taxpayer pays $287 per year on the interest to our national debt but only 24 cents per year on the arts.
Then there’s the well-supported idea that federal funding for the arts pays for itself 18 times over; an 1,800% return on investment. You give the arts one buck, and at the end of the year, the arts will give you $18.75 back.
So this seems like a no-brainer, right? Wrong.
Well, let’s look at the history of arts patronage. And I’ll try to make it short.
Patronage of the arts is all over history, from the medieval era through Renaissance Europe to feudal Japan. Arts patronage went hand-in-hand with an imperial system and a large aristocracy. The history of patronage follows the history of culture; where there were monarchs, there was patronage. Where there was The Church, there was patronage.
There’s even patronage of the arts in the Bible; in Exodus, God commissions the Israelites to create a tabernacle. Then there’s Saul, without whom we would not have some of the Psalms.
Artists such as Chrétien de Troyes, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, William Shakespeare, and Ben Jonson all sought and enjoyed the support of noble or ecclesiastical patrons. Henri Matisse and Paul Gauguin both received extensive funding from the French government to support their artistic efforts. Mozart and Beethoven also benefited from patrons.
With the rise of capitalism, culture moved away from the established patronage system to the publicly-supported system of museums, theatres, symphonies and opera companies that is familiar today.
But in America, we’ve never had a solid imperial patronage system; our system suffers from a lack of royal and ecclesiastical precedent and, therefore, a lack of habitual patronage. Pair this with rampant commercialism, which suggests the idea that if art doesn’t sell, it’s not worth making, and the struggle of the arts in America becomes more clear.
But mass commercial consumption can’t create art. It can create American Idol, sure. But it doesn’t give us art. It gives us entertainment.
And many Americans don’t draw a distinction between the two.
On top of that is the inaccurate idea of the inaccessible genius artist. A real artist, though, is not some strange interloper in our society. An artist’s calling in culture is no different from any other calling; we still need to eat, to pay our mortgages, to support our families.
Yet I still haven’t successfully explained why many Americans bristle at state-supported art. And it’s a question that I cannot answer with any assurance of accuracy or deep truth. But I have a theory.
And here it is; art is rebellious and reflects a certain world view. Art cannot be neutral. American taxpayers shudder at the idea that their yearly quarter might be one of the quarters supporting blasphemous, pornographic, trashy or unprincipled art. That fear has become the tenor of the conversation with the side-effect that all of the other art that same taxpayer may find worthwhile gets tossed aside.
But for every Robert Mapplethorpe there’s a Big Read. Or a Coming Up Taller, a program that supports community arts and humanities after-school programs for at-risk and underserved youth. We cannot dictate what the NEA funds, but getting rid of the NEA won’t get rid of Mapplethorpe. It will get rid of Great American Voices, which brought opera to military bases. And Operation Homecoming, a program that helped soldiers write about their war experiences; to share their important stories. And MICD25, a program that supports creative placemaking projects that contribute to the livability of communities and help transform sites into lively, beautiful, and sustainable places with the arts at their core.
That’s what we’re at risk of losing. And that is worth saving.
In 21st century America, everyone is a king. We have access to more resources, more time, more capital, and more art than anyone in the history of the world. And I fear we’re beginning to take it all for granted. We’re assuming that art will always be there, no matter what.
We also forget that arts and culture feed the economy in very tangible ways. Cutting funding to the arts will be detrimental to the stability of our money. The stability of our spirit. The stability of our culture. The stability of the American dream.
Today’s patronage is tomorrow’s history. Can we count on you?
Our fundraising tack this season has was inspired by the March of Dimes campaign during the depression; small amounts, many people, exponential growth in funds. But all of our fans need to give in order for that to work and, so far, though many have given (and thank you) the final amounts are still too small to make the kind of difference we envision in our long term budgetary plan. Unless donor giving patterns change drastically, we cannot survive without government funds.
We realize our future is in that rubric, small amounts, many people, exponential growth in funds, but we need your help to make that rubric a reality. If you would like to help us take a step toward that future, you may donate at the link below.
If you cannot donate, advocate. This month Great Nonprofits and Guidestar are sponsoring a contest; the nonprofit org with the most reviews posted in February wins $5,000, an amount that would help Octarium do more local educational outreach and provide funding needed to record our next album. Can you help? Only takes five minutes. Write a review at the link below.
And if you support government funding for the arts, write a letter to your representatives in support of continuing funding for the National Endowment for the Arts.
posted by Krista Lang Blackwood, artistic director