Jeffrey Bussmann, a young blogger and nonprofit arts management guy, attended our rally in Philadelphia and brought up an interesting point – one that has come up a few times now along the road and one we feel worth contending with. Here’s the quote that caught our attention:

“You see, BHQF have (sic) a bone to pick with the business and economics of art and art schools. It is hard to begrudge them that the commercial art world has its unseemly practices. It is also fact that almost no one who graduates with a fine arts degree will achieve gallery representation, let alone sales robust enough to support a living. But for they would have it, it’s ars gratia artis or nothing. Art is a vocation, a higher calling—a point that I can agree upon—but one which is sullied once money becomes involved; art and business are at polar ends of the spectrum.

BHQF takes (sic) exception with the National Endowment for the Arts, picking on its leader Rocco Landesman (an easy target), and its current tagline “Art Works,” i.e. the concept that art can be a generator for local economies. In this city, such a claim is tantamount to blasphemy. Alas, there was no one from the Office of Arts, Culture, and the Creative Economy, the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, or the Arts & Business Council to go toe to toe with them. At the least, their bone of contention with the economic argument for the value of the arts is appallingly naïve. It is the most formidable tool that those in the arts have against naysayers, particularly elected officials who fundamentally disagree that public money should be used in support of the arts. It is but one part of an arsenal that encompasses and can work hand in hand with arguing for the intrinsic value of the arts, not its mortal enemy.”

Jeffrey is absolutely right to point out that the economic argument for the value of the arts has been the most effective tool we’ve had to keep any degree of arts funding alive. In fact, that’s precisely the argument with the most currency (pardon the pun) no matter what we’re arguing for.

You want lower taxes? Argue that it stimulates the economy. You want higher taxes? Argue that it stimulates the economy. You want tougher immigration laws? Argue that immigrants are stealing American jobs. You want more open borders? Argue that immigrants will do the jobs the middle class doesn’t want. You want better schools? Argue that it’s producing a better workforce. Public healthcare? Tell ‘em it’s going to save us money.

No matter the issue at hand, “It’s the economy, stupid” is always the soup of the day. The first one to make an economic argument for or against abortion wins the gold medal.

Jeffrey is right. The economic argument for the arts works. Sort of. Except the NEA’s funding is probably about to be slashed once again despite Mr. Landesman’s best efforts. But let’s assume the powers that be finally were convinced: the arts are an important instrument of the economy. Where does that leave us?

It leaves us with a quantifiable value system for the significance of the arts. Prove your economic merit and you prove your worth to society. Is that what we want from the art our government funds? Is that what we want from the art non-profits are capable of funding?

As Jeffrey must be aware, there has been a significant turn in how arts funding through non-profits works in the U.S. It’s called sponsorship. Companies that, in the past may have been compelled to give funding with the simple incentive of a tax break can now plaster their names on whatever they like. Take a look around your local MoCAs and you’ll see what we mean. In New York one of our more hilarious examples is Target® free night. A program that began because of pressure from the Art Workers Coalition is now a tool for corporate sponsorship.

We’d love to believe, as Jeffrey contends, that the economic argument can work hand in happy hand with an argument for the intrinsic value of the arts, but as anyone who has followed the recent budget debates can verify, the economy sucks up all the oxygen. Give it any space in the debate and it will instrumentalize publicly funded art into a whitewashing tool for corporate interests.

The free marketeers who have been steadily pushing the U.S. further and further to the right since Reagan own the terms of the debate. That’s why the Democrats we elect today can’t even fund the NEA as well as Nixon did. When Reagan attempted to abolish the NEA (three times!), the economic argument won the day. But, at that point in time even old Ronnie was willing to believe the government had a responsibility to stimulate the economy.

Flash forward to the present day. The current crop of tea bag sympathizers think the free market can solve everything. If it’s worth having, people will pay for it. They will pay for what they want, without government interference, thus producing a healthier, more diverse culture that more accurately reflects the needs and desires of the American people.

You see, Jeffrey, the right wing is making an economic argument too. And when it comes to the arts, they’ve got a few especially compelling angles: the best art getting made today is largely operating without government funding (therefore the free market works), and private funding doesn’t have to answer to the political pressure of conservative groups.

Go toe to toe with them over Defense, Healthcare, the highway system, and it’s not too hard to show how public funding makes sense economically. We don’t have to have a moral debate. We all save money by pooling our resources around certain things. But how do we make that argument for the arts?

Not only does the U.S. already give a paltry amount toward the arts (compare our per citizen art tax of 24 cents to Sweden’s 35 dollars), but centralizing the bureaucracy of arts funding actually makes it harder to get that money to artists.

Go talk to anyone working in a non-profit who is re-granting NEA money to artists and ask them how much it costs them to give out the grants. The fact is, in many cases, the only way that money ever gets to artists is through supplemental fundraising from the private sector: individual donors and corporations.

Oh, it’s not looking good for public arts funding now. The free marketeers can point out how much more effective the private sector already is at funding the arts, how it produces higher quality, and how it’s actually a better way to preserve free expression. And we intend to fend them off with an economic argument? Now, that’s starting to sound naïve.

The only economic argument for public arts funding is that there are already jobs there and there could be room for more. But if we really want to let economic thinking lead the way we should be funding a National Endowment for Entertainment, or a National Endowment for Trans Fats, or a National Endowment for Nascar.

So, at the very least, let’s lead our arguments with what’s in our heart of hearts. We don’t have to be naïve utopians to believe that there are reasons for doing things that aren’t about money. The entire course of human history proves that qualitative arguments beat quantitative ones. That’s why there are still religions and families.

We have much much more important reasons than the economy for funding the arts and you know it. So let’s stop being pushovers to the economic imperative. No one got into non-profit arts management because they thought they were doing something important to stimulate the economy. You didn’t do it because art works, you did it because art matters.

For the full text of Jeffrey Bussmann’s blog, click here.

 

 

3 Responses to If Funding Art is Wrong, We Don’t Want to Be Right

  1. First of all, thank you for engaging with this topic and taking the time to respond to my critique. I am also glad to hear that I am not the only one who voiced a concern of a similar nature. I could not agree with you more that to be an artist and to present art for the right reasons is a moral imperative. But what I was reacting to in my original post was the impression that I got from your presentation that even mentioning money or economic value is to denigrate the arts in some way, which I thought was either naïve utopianism, to lift one of your descriptors, or textbook contrarianism. You seemed to be more interested in subverting the existing systems that you felt had done wrong by you, rather than trying to improve or repair them, in your advocating for the type of antiestablishment model that BHQFU represents. I found this attitude unhelpful to a larger public and ultimately self-serving.

    Now it seems that you acknowledge the importance of public funding for the arts, even though chasing after and distributing public funds for the arts is a labor-intensive process fraught with agonizing bureaucracy, and the recent federal budget battles mean the outlook for the NEA and NEH is hopeless. Are you asking: why even bother? It is not necessary for me to debate with any of the Tea Party/Conservative devil’s advocate playing here, because I know that this is not what you believe. In my own idealist fantasy, public funding the arts would never be looked at as a political issue or a superfluous luxury; it would be universally accepted as providing access to a basic human right.

    However, I fully embrace that our free market system means that corporations and individuals can contribute to the arts at the highest level they choose, make stipulations for the use of the money, and demand to be acknowledged in a certain way. I concede that I am a Development person, so something like Target Free Nights (we have these in Philadelphia at the Franklin Institute, too) does not bother me in the way it may rankle you. It is an outward signifier that the leadership of the Target Corporation, or any company that sponsors an event or series, sees the value of the arts and makes a commitment to culturally enriching the lives of people in places where it maintains a business presence. I am not naïve enough to think they are doing it for nothing. They have a right to want people to be aware of their contribution, just as a person who gives money to endow a curator position or pay for a new museum wing wants his or her name in the title. I do not have a problem with this; I do have a problem with an institution accepting money that may have ridiculous reporting guidelines, strings attached that hobble the fulfillment of mission or lead to “mission creep,” or specifically support a program that inordinately benefits the gifting entity. I also disagree with accepting money from a company that has a poor public image or reprehensible corporate values (e.g. BP).

    It is not wrong to lead the fight for the arts with the economic argument. You astutely mentioned that in the halls of Congress, the economy has taken precedence over all other debates. Citing the model of the arts as an economic stimulator gets a foot in the door with officials who want to know what good this will do to helping their constituents and to getting themselves reelected. It does not stain the nobler elements of the arts to report on well-researched data that demonstrates the substantial financial impact that the arts generate in a community. The economic imperative is the tactic that works today; the “Great Nation” claim that inspired the NEA’s creation, though still credible, is no longer compelling to those in a public arena. You do not have to soil your hands with championing the economic effects of the arts if you do not want to do so; leave that to arts administrators and arts advocates. But do not reject us outright, because we share motives and goals that have everything in common. If I did not think that the arts are the most fundamentally important thing in life besides physiological human needs, there is no reason that I would be in this profession.

  2. Christian Viveros-Faune says:

    Fucking brilliant response, fellas. Keep it up.

    CVF

  3. [...] process of making art is not a solely an economic function, as this pretty brilliant post from the Bruce High Quality Foundation makes clear. But when the shit hit the fan for Intermedia Arts in 2008, they cut back staff and [...]

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