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Thursday, July 28, 2005

Killing the National Endowment for the Arts

The footnotes did not transfer over with the cut and pasting. You'll have to take my word on the quotes, facts, numbers and everything else that was cited. If are skeptical or for other reasons want the file let me know...

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The National Endowment for the Arts

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) states that their organization is, “the largest annual funder of the arts in the United States. An independent federal agency, the National Endowment for the Arts is the official arts organization of the United States government.” Its opponents state that the NEA is, “an unwarranted extension of the federal government into the voluntary sector.” The NEA was founded in 1965 as part of president Johnson’s Great Society initiatives. In more detailed accounts, opponents of the NEA note that, “…few federal agencies have been mired in more controversy than the NEA. Nevertheless, steadfast partisans of “welfare for artists” continue to defend the Endowment…” Critics also stress that the National Endowment for the Arts does not promote charitable giving as the organization promotes a very small and defined portion of America’s artists. The NEA says this about itself, “Before the Establishment of the NEA in 1965, the arts were limited mostly to a few big cities. The Arts Endowment has helped create regional theatre, opera, ballet, symphony orchestras, museums and other art organizations that Americans now enjoy. In its 38 year history, the NEA has awarded more than 120,000 grants that have brought art to Americans in communities large and small.” Conservatives and Liberals fight over these basic issues: whether the arts are a “voluntary sector”, whether the NEA brings art to people who otherwise would not be exposed to it, and whether NEA sponsored art is enriching and inoffensive.

One of the NEA’s major claims is to have increased public accessibility to the arts. The number of nonprofit professional theatre companies in the United States is an example that proponents cite frequently. In 1965 there were roughly 50 nonprofit theatre companies; there are now 600. The NEA does not hesitate in taking responsibility for this proliferation in the arts. Conservatives argue that the arts ability to flourish is not due directly to the NEA’s activities, but to a growing and more affluent and culturally attuned population. What is clear is that the NEA has been largely successful in distributing grants and money throughout the last half of the 20th century. The majority of NEA grants have gone to creating art that is enjoyed and respected by most Americans. The uncertainty surrounding the quantification of the NEA’s ability to facilitate greater public accessibility to art makes it impossible to put numbers and absolute values on the impact of the NEA. This makes any sort of calculations on the arts dependence on the NEA equally difficult. These two unanswerable questions and sticking points have given American politicians much to debate about. This peripheral frenzy has allowed the political system to guilefully ignore the true ideological question it faces; whether the federal government is responsible for supporting and subsidizing American art.

The NEA distributes its funds through grant giving procedures that are highly controversial and have been routinely criticized by both parties. All government subsidies have criteria, and obtaining NEA grants is extremely difficult. It is understood that the NEA cannot distribute grants on a random basis; thus it is dictated that the biases of the agency, whether they be liberal or conservative, are inevitably seen in its granting process. Senior Editor of “The Progress Report,” Mr. Fred E. Foldvary, makes an interesting point when noting, “Since some art is controversial, grants necessarily discriminate. As The Brooklyn Exhibit shows, if the works [controversial] are subsidized, it forces taxpayers to finance art they find revolting.” The NEA has acknowledged the desire to avoid the promotion of a canon of ‘politically correct’ art. With this in mind, liberals argue that if works like the Brooklyn Exhibit do not receive funding it unfairly denies controversial artists an equally opportunity.

The NEA as a branch of the, highly equal opportunity, federal government has walked a fine line in granting money to individuals and projects that include experimental work. The NEA distributes approximately 4,000 grants a year. At this rate, with even a slightly flawed system, demographics within the population are bound to be offended by a few radical works that are mistakenly or unmistakenly funded. It is the vocal minority that has been so exploitive and damning of NEA sponsored art that is labeled offensive. As a way to ensure continued existence and funding, the NEA should acknowledge these minority groups and adopt an openly discriminate stance in their granting process. Stating outright, what types of art they wont support and for what reasons. Furthermore, out of political self preservation the NEA should reconsider supporting artists who have a history of producing art that is offensive or based on subjects deemed generally offensive such as religion and sex. The NEA should quickly condemn artists who use their NEA granted money in the creation of highly controversial artwork so as not minimize the offense taken by others. The NEA might best serve itself if it let controversial artists utilize private sources of capital. For those that champion highly controversial artwork, it is not unreasonable to assume that if the NEA were to adopt an openly discriminate stance, against controversial artwork, it would surely stimulate a wave of innovative retaliatory art.

For years Republicans and Democrats have argued over the financial effectiveness of the NEA. Republicans have singled out this issue as the key point in their fight to disband the agency. Democrats have worked vehemently maintaining that the NEA serves a crucial arts sector that would be left defunct if federally neglected. By the standards of most large charitable institutions the NEA is a staggeringly ineffective agency. Twenty-five cents of every tax dollar that goes to the National Endowment for the Arts is lost in bureaucratic overhead. The NEA as an established agency is fully entrenched in the federal bureaucracy. The NEA’s lengthy period of existence suggests that the rate of overhead is as low as it will ever be given its organizational circumstances. It is inexcusable for an organization that simply redistributes money to lose 25% of its revenue to administrative costs . The American Film Institute operates on revenues of $21.2 million a year. The institute’s administrative costs have been held to 11.2% of their total budget , less than half of what the NEA incurs. The American Film Institute is not alone; at 10.9% Public Radio International also shares low rates of administrative overhead . Some organizations are not as prudent, nevertheless their costs do not equal those of the NEA. The Smithsonian Institute for example engages only 18.2% of its budget in administrative costs . Similar to double taxation, when money is awarded through the NEA it is exposed to the administrative costs of two organizations, those of the NEA and those of the organization it goes to. Thus, for every tax dollar distributed by the NEA anywhere from 35-45 cents of it is lost, the intent of the tax payer left unaccomplished. In in current climate American tax payers cannot be asked to shoulder these astronomical costs, and more importantly unnecessary burdens.

The results of the NEA’s granting process are geographically disturbing to congressmen and women of all affiliations. Thirty percent of the NEA’s monetary distributions go to six cities . In addition another 25 percent is granted to organizations in the state of New York alone. Leaving only 34% of the NEA’s seemingly token sized budget for the rest of the country, it becomes easier to understand claims suggesting that the NEA panders to small and defined areas of the country. On the subject of the NEA’s geographical representation Representative Peter Hoekstra of Michigan noted in a televised debate that, “The arts were thriving before the National Endowment for the Arts was established; they’re thriving now…come to my district, 143 other congressional districts around the country get no money directly from the National Endowment for the Arts and the arts are thriving.” Upholding the just nature of the NEA, Senator Jeffords of Vermont has said that, “Art has flourished and especially in the low-income areas of our cities. I’ve also see programs like in New York City run by the Endowment that help with therapy for kids that have had experienced traumatic events…the Endowments help make sure that those people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to participate be able to let the nation know about the duties that they can create.” In the struggle to maintain the NEA’s position proponents often note that children involved in the arts can see as much as a 59 percent improvement on SAT scores.

The NEA’s inability to fund the nation in a geographically diverse and representational way highlights something aside from the pragmatism that would suggest a large portion of Americans are not getting back what they deserve. The geographical weight shows a Federal endorsement of the belief that art should be centralized in national meccas. This is a clear statement by the federal government that art is not a service all people are equally entitled to. The implication that those people in 6 large cities and the state of NY are more entitled to federal funds than the large majority of people elsewhere is laughable. It has been said that the best proposals come from these areas, and that is why they receive the majority of grants. This is not a valid argument. Rural schools routinely under-perform and we would never argue that this demographic of students is any less deserving of funding than their suburban counterparts. It has been argued that in fact the rural parts of the country, those with limited access to the large institutional donors of the big cities need federal funding most. These are large obstacles the NEA must overcome if it wishes to exert a positive impact on American society into the future. The federal government should more closely regulate geographical distribution and either allow the NEA to become a large player in arts funding or have the agency phased out.

The NEA has become a cultural icon in the American landscape and when suggestion of its disbandment arises often the first reaction is strongly against the notion. However, often the perception is that the NEA is larger and exerts a larger influence on the arts in America than it truly does. This is to say that it is not out of reach to suggest that the private sector and the arts industry could assimilate and accept the financial responsibility of the NEA’s roughly $105 million dollar annual budget . A look at the fundraising targets of a few of the major arts organizations in the United States shows how trivial the NEA’s annual budget is when placed into perspective. The New York Times reports that The Metropolitan Museum of Art is looking to raise $300 million, the New York Public Library $430 million, the Museum of Modern Art $300-$450 million. Three of the nations larger arts organizations alone expect to generate roughly ten times the NEA’s annual budget. It is quite clear that the NEA is only dabbling in arts funding. The numbers speak for themselves and clearly show that the NEA’s influence and impact could be easily assumed by the private sector.

The NEA in its current form is a token agency of the federal government. Its budget is trivial, and used poorly. The small size of the NEA illustrates that the government has hesitated to fully support the arts. A clear consensus on whether it is the government’s responsibility to fund art in America has never been made. The public and federal government must decide whether the arts fall under the federal government’s umbrella of responsibility. If the conclusion is that the arts are a federal responsibility the NEA should be allotted at least $1 billion a year, enabling the agency to carry our arts organizations into the future operating at their fullest potential. If arts funding is not the government’s responsibility, the agency should be dismantled over the next 5 to 10 years. Either way, current ideological ambiguity that the NEA operates under cannot be accepted as a long term solution.

Ideological difference is the base of continued Republican and Democratic squabbling over the NEA. Liberals feel strongly that the federal government is responsible for subsidizing artists and art in America. Conservatives tend to believe that the constitution does not directly or implicitly dictate that arts funding should be done through the federal government. Democrats argue that the NEA funds individuals and small organizations that would otherwise wither away. The NEA is fiercely proud of their availability claiming to be only organization in the United States that will accept all monetary proposals, thus providing any and all Americans a chance to have their work funded. Republicans counter that the NEA’s concern for small individuals and organizations is false citing that only 5% of the budget goes to individuals.

In the face of continuing budget crises the White House and Republicans have looked to dismantle the NEA completely. Although, this isn’t likely it is helpful to know what compromises the Republican Party would most likely be willing to make. If required to compromise Republicans would like to continue offering tax deductibility and limit grants to only national organizations. Republicans are largely opposed to the federal government sponsoring regional and local activities, “We shouldn’t focus on trying to pick winners and losers in Vermont, winners and losers in Michigan…let’s focus on national treasures, not trying to pick local winners.” One must remember though that even this is a compromised position. Conservatives will go on to explain that our “national treasures” don’t need federal funding. The Metropolitan Opera for example, to replace its NEA annual grant of roughly $875,000, would only need to raise its ticket prices $1.50 each. This would be at the maximum a 1.2% raise in its starting ticket price of $125. Not only is this a nominal change in value, even for the few working class patrons of the opera, but for the majority of well-to-do opera patrons such a raise in ticket prices would mean absolutely nothing. Americans need not support a federal agency that spends much of its money subsidizing art venues of the wealthy in ways they hardly notice or need.

In recent years the NEA has escaped from the political spotlight. Largely due to the effects of terrorism and America’s increased international involvement, the nation’s focus on domestic arts policy has been sparing. As the United States wraps up it’s presence in Iraq the American consciousness will refocus on domestic policy. The re-emergence of a Red and Blue America and the new “American divide” will be analyzed. Republicans will emphasize that NEA funding falls primarily in Blue America. The Republican controlled legislative and executive branches will undoubtedly raise the concerns we have heard and thwarted so many times before. In the end we need to answer the hardest question of all: Should the federal government support the arts?

The federal government should never directly support the arts, especially in its current fashion. The NEA, is for political reasons, unable to support the smaller institutions that need outside assistance the most, and although the NEA’s support of larger institutions is a nice gesture, it is unnecessary. The arts organizations regularly sponsored by the NEA are often the most prestigious and expensive. The majority of American tax payers have been priced out of the events these organizations present. It is clear that the NEA’s $105 million budget is a mere dime in the arts industry. With proper care the $105 million budget could be easily replaced with private funding. If the public is demanding in its desire for Federal support the White House should issue block grants to each member of the House of Representatives. This would on a more local level equally distribute arts funding throughout the United States. More importantly it would bring the traditionally most arts objecting branch of the government into direct contact with the arts and its positive influences.

What can we, as individuals in this great country, do to resolve the issues surrounding arts funding? Create a dialogue, between your friends, family, and local representatives. Consider and discuss who should be responsible for deciding which arts organizations get funding and how those funds should be delivered. And finally after you feel comfortable with the issues make decisions. Donating to the arts is a form of self-expression, do you have the time to give support to your favorite arts organization or is this something you feel the government is best suited to do for you?

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