Up for Debate: What is the Best Way to Fund the Arts in America?

It is a topic that we have covered extensively here at Tech in the Arts over the past couple of months: what is the best way to fund the arts in America? With the National Endowment for the Arts seeing budget cuts, Kickstarter growing in popularity, and increased austerity measures around the world forcing large cuts to the arts, the topic has received a fair amount of attention in recent months. Last week, the New York Times, as part of its perennial “Room for Debate” series, asked the question I mentioned above, along with some others: What can we do to stabilize funding? Can we learn from the experiences of other countries? What can be done to improve effectiveness?

The Times gathered eight individuals from the artistic, non-profit, and political sectors, asking them what they believed were the best ways to fund the arts. Their answers might surprise you.

The eight respondents in the series tended to gravitate towards two positions: either the government needs to do more to fund the arts and various programs, or the government needs to get out of the way and the responsibility should rest on individuals instead. Like most policy debates, the question naturally comes back to what role the government should play; while some would argue too little is spent on funding (for example, the NEA received $147 million last year, a tiny, tiny fraction of the overall federal budget), others would say that instead of the government using taxpayer dollars to fund programs, it’s better left to the private sector and individuals to decide what programs should be funded.

Going through the eight responses, it was interesting to see how each person eventually gravitated towards one of these two areas. Some were more explicit and forward than others, but it’s this tug of war between more government investment and less government involvement that always seems to come up when debating any kind of public policy. The arts are no exception.

I encourage everyone to read the entire discussion, but I will summarize the eight viewpoints below.

Beth Nathanson, director of development at Playwrights Horizon, is quick to point out America’s “culture of philanthropy,” and says the following:

“It is a misconception that corporate or government support has ever provided the majority of arts funding. Each United States citizen pays about the cost of one postage stamp in taxes to support national arts and arts education programs. And those corporations that fund the arts primarily fund prominent organizations serving a high number of people. The real stars of arts giving are individual donors. They provide the lion’s share of support across the country, and on average, give more to arts than corporations and government entities combined.”

Nathanson points out that the arts are a fundamental part of our daily lives, and encourages individual investment in the arts, instead of government involvement. She, and many others, point to the Brazil model, which is a sort of public-private partnership that raises funding for the arts through payroll taxes. Everyone can certainly agree that “the arts should be an integral part of our lives,” the question becomes, in the end, how is that managed and developed? While taxes are certainly one way, personal responsibility, through giving, is another possibility as well.

David Boaz, of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank based in Washington, takes the individual model a bit further, and says that all arts funding needs to be separated from the government, because the government has too much control over where the money is spent. Better to let individuals and the private sector handle the responsibility instead, Boaz writes:

“People should not be forced to contribute money to artistic endeavors that they may not approve, nor should artists be forced to trim their sails to meet government standards.”

Boaz goes on to mention Kickstarter, an outlet for individuals to direct money to programs they explicitly support. This approach, Boaz argues, is preferable to the NEA’s approach, which is to take money from all taxpayers and then direct it to programs the agency support.

Robert Lynch, CEO of Americans for the Arts, disagrees. Instead of spending less on the arts at the federal level, we should be spending more, and seek to start a “national dialogue” on the importance of arts funding. Lynch writes:

“Last month, 800 advocates were in Washington to defend to Congress the 47 cents per person that America spends on the National Endowment for the Arts. This amount should be much more but despite its seemingly small percentage, government support leverages billions in matching dollars, increases access — especially for the underserved — and encourages new voices, ideas and expressive endeavors that have kept the U.S. at the vanguard of creativity and innovation.”

Lynch writes about America needing to have the “creative will” to move past the issue of why funding is so important and start talking about how we should do it. Lynch, and many others, believe government revenue is the best way to do that.

Sergio Munoz Sarmiento, an artist and arts lawyer, takes issue with “mandatory funding,” the idea that everyone contribute to the same pot and those funds have to be spent each year:

“Arts funding should be encouraged, yet voluntary. Mandating government and corporate subsidies for the arts raises a few concerns for me. Will mandated art subsidies affect the quality of artistic production? Will this type of funding encourage a passive artistic community? And finally, will it create a curatorial practice on behalf of granting institutions?”

In other words, a program where funding is guaranteed does a disservice to artists, who will not be as entrepreneurial or imaginative if funding is a certainty. Better to have more competition and uncertainty, which will lead artists to become more daring, creative, and/or original in their works.

Clyde Valentin and Kamilah Forbes, of the Hip-Hop Theater Festival, focus on the reliability of arts funding, and maintain that a stronger commitment to the arts will encourage more collaboration and certainty among artists and arts groups:

“The experience of the Hip-Hop Theater Festival is that where our funding is most reliable, our programs have the most impact. In Washington, for example, our partnership with the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities has enabled our organization to produce the D.C. Festival for little or no direct cost to the public. The festival draws an unprecedented audience annually to some of D.C.’s most prestigious arts institutions, reaching thousands who get to experience art they would never otherwise have an opportunity to see.”

Michael Royce, executive director of the New York Foundation for the Arts, is another defender of federal funding for the arts. In addition to greater federal funding, he encourages greater incentives, through federal tax policy, for individuals to donate to the arts as well:

“The U.S. model has traditionally given incentives for private support, usually through tax deductible donations. Likely the most efficient method of increasing private funds is to strengthen those incentives. For example, the current cap on tax-deductible contributions is 10 percent of taxable income and could be raised for arts contributions, perhaps to 15 percent. Smaller companies, through cash grants or in-kind donations, can make vital and targeted contributions to specific artists' projects. On the individual level, tax forms could allow for earmarked donations to the arts.”

Royce, and many others, agree that the problem is that there simply isn’t enough funding for the arts at this time. Through greater federal investment, and tax incentives, Royce argues for a new model.

Finally, Stacy Palmer, editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy, talks about how little of the money donated to charitable causes in 2010 went to the arts community: only five percent. The majority of the money went to places like universities, religious groups, and hospitals. She also points out the myth that most arts funding is donated by the wealthy:

“It's a myth that the rich are keeping the arts alive; while many are to be commended for their huge donations, America's millionaires and billionaires provide a small portion of the money that flows to cultural causes.”

Palmer points out that it is time to “rethink” how everyone, including the public and private sectors, individuals, and arts organizations steer money towards the arts, which is something I think all of us can agree on.

Taken together, the New York Times series was a fascinating look at the different perspectives towards how arts should be funded in the U.S. All of us can agree on the problem: the arts need more funding. The question, going forward, is how to best do so.

Whether it is continued federal support towards groups like the National Endowment for the Arts, more of a focus on private alternatives, like Kickstarter, or some kind of combination of the two, the debate is sure to continue.

After reading the different responses, where do you stand? How should funding for the arts be developed in the United States, and what steps can we take to get there?