Number Four: A reason to be angry

I have started this post four times now. I have had so much to share and I haven’t known where or how to start, but I have calmed down a bit, and I think I am ready.

I have been angry.

"Kids will leave their mark, with or without the arts."
This image was to advocate the importance of art education
by the
Arizona Arts Commission.
Deciding whether or not government support for the arts is a good idea or even necessary has always been an interesting yet frustrating argument for me. To be honest, I usually find myself advocating against government support of the arts. This stems from a very overbearing belief of mine that government support for the arts runs synonymous with censoring them. As I mentioned in my second post, government officials often feel that they are held responsible for what artists produce with taxpayers' money.

To be clear, I think it is all well and good that people believe the government should support the arts in this country; however I do not believe that the government has ever been able to accept the implications of supporting artists.

Throughout our nation’s history our government and their constituents (myself included) have struggled to really define the role that the Fine Arts play in our society. Most arts organizations are classified as 501 (c ) 3 charitable corporations, this is literally defined as an organization that provides a service to the public that the government does not provide. As charitable corporations: arts organizations receive a tax break and are allowed to receive contributions from individuals who may then deduct those contributions from their federal income tax.  Pretty sweet right?

The problem with this is that new start-up organizations often need seed money or organizations that have been around for a while cannot seem to cover the less glamorous overhead costs. Donors do not want to give money so that arts organizations can keep their lights on, they want to donate to a cause that will somehow validate them as an individual, which is fair.

This is where the government comes in. Who else could be burdened with the responsibility to fund unglamorous projects or projects that truly enhance society (example: bringing arts service organizations to inner city youth)?

See? It really does make sense for the government to invest in the arts.

The problem with playing the funding game with the government is pure politics (no pun intended). Government officials have a responsibility to their constituents and they do not want to be known as the person who cut healthcare funding in order to keep the arts commission in business. Sadly, arts funding in this country accounts for a fraction of a percent of most governmental budgets (in FY10 the budget of the NEA is a very modest $160 million, which equates to about $0.50 an individual). Thus cutting arts spending rarely saves a large amount of money.

My main issue with the propositions of budget dismantling and in some cases a complete obliteration of state arts commissions (Kansas) is that it alters the public’s perception of the Fine Arts. By providing funding to the arts the government has more or less created a stamp of approval (albeit small). This validation shows citizens that the arts are really worth investing in and the arts are necessary in our society. Budget cuts are a necessary evil, especially in hard times; however failing to provide any funding or just shutting down a state’s arts commission sends a message that cannot be taken back.

As long as art advocates do not wager an argument that relies on art for art’s sake, we have a chance. Politicians are not looking for a warm story that really changed a life, they are looking to see what is in it for them.  Examples of such arguments are as follows:

  • The arts create jobs, thus, they can be used as an economic stimulus. Over time the arts have even been proven to economically rejuvenate cities (see: North Adams, MA).
  • The arts preserve culture and heritage. People often think that culture and heritage live in the art of the past, but practicing artists create new parts of our culture and heritage every day.
  • The arts can be used as a device to drive down crime rates through inner city programs.

The issues surrounding government funding are often misunderstood. Funding for the arts is necessary. Who funds the arts is up for discussion. My personal concern is the public’s perception of the arts in response to extreme changes in funding. If people stop believing in the arts we will no longer have anything to wager. 

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