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Arts Organizations Seek Strategies for Survival

For advocates of public funding for the arts, it was a short acid flashback to the Robert Mapplethorpe/Karen Finley culture wars of the 1980s and ’90s. Late last year, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., found itself in the crosshairs when critics learned that a video piece on display in “Hide/Seek,” a show about sexual differences in American portraiture, contained images of ants crawling on a crucifix.


Catholic League President Bill Donohue, without having seen David Wojnarowicz’s “A Fire in My Belly,” called the 1987 work “hate speech.” Leading Republican Reps. John Boehner and Eric Cantor, among others, deplored what Cantor called “an outrageous use of taxpayer money.” The publicly supported Smithsonian pulled the piece from the show, provoking a second wave of outcries, about censorship and curatorial timidity.


While hot-button issues such as this one have become more sporadic, the National Endowment for the Arts, state arts councils and local sources of public arts funding are now facing what may be an even tougher systemic challenge. In a political climate dominated by concerns about the economy, job creation and budget-slashing deficit reduction, the arts will have to make a compelling case for their sliver of the public pie.


Signs of the struggle are abundant. President Obama’s 2012 budget calls for a steep 13 percent reduction in the NEA annual budget, from a current figure of $168 million to a proposed $146 million. The House has angled for further cuts. By contrast, in the immediate aftermath of the culture wars in 1992, the NEA budget reached $176 million.


Severe Pressure


State arts budgets have also come under severe pressure. After Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback pulled the plug on the Kansas Arts Commission this year, that organization is down to its last few thousand dollars and fighting for survival. Similar crises have beset state arts agencies in South Carolina, Arizona, Washington and elsewhere. According to California Arts Advocates, the Golden State’s per capita spending for the arts – 3 cents – puts California at or close to the bottom nationally.


No one marshals the evidence in support of public arts funding more persuasively than Robert Lynch, president and CEO of the advocacy group Americans for the Arts. Reached by phone in Charleston, W.Va., where he was attending a conference of state arts agencies, Lynch laid out a two-part platform at once idealistic and pragmatically rooted in current realities.


“The arts are an essential part of a creative and competitive economy because they help people understand the world,” he said. “They are fundamental to what it means to be a human being and a citizen. We’re not talking about money for decoration or icing on the cake. The arts are important to society.”


The second plank of Lynch’s platform rests squarely on the economic impact of the arts. “They create jobs,” he declared, citing research by the Urban Institute that estimates 5.7 million jobs either directly or indirectly tied to 107,000 nonprofit arts organizations. The aggregate effect, according to the most recent research by Americans for the Arts, is $166 billion.


Not included in those figures, Lynch added, are dance studios, music stores, bookstores, for-profit theaters and movie houses. Counting them, the U.S. arts job total swells to 650,000, comprising 4.2 percent of all American businesses.


And there’s more.


Crime Deterrent


“We know that the arts are a crime deterrent in urban revitalizations,” Lynch said. “At-risk youth have lower recidivism rates when they’re exposed to the arts.” That’s according to a Department of Justice study. Retired U.S. Brig. Gen. Nolan Bivens has told Congress that the arts serve national defense and security by “helping our forces win the hearts and minds and maintain support among the citizenry.”


“The arts,” Lynch said, “are America’s secret weapon.”


Skeptics counter that government has no business supporting the arts, especially at a time when other priorities are so pressing. Writing in the New Republic, Jonathan Chait asserted, “Art is not a giant project like a highway or national park, something so big that individuals have neither the incentive nor the means to build it on their own. Nor is art a good that ought to be universally enjoyed as a matter of entitlement, like education or health care.” Chait went on to say that art “can be produced and consumed by small groups or individuals who are willing to pay for it. People are also willing to subsidize it through their own charitable donations.”


However persuasively they defend their positions on public arts funding, the fact is that both proponents and opponents are arguing about a relatively tiny pot of money. Compared with government support in France, Germany and other countries, the United States devotes a minute fraction of its budget to the arts. Even as a percentage of their own budgets, U.S. arts organizations receive less than 9 percent of their support, on average, from public sources. The rest is either earned or raised from individuals, corporations and foundations.


Still, Lynch maintains, public funding is vital, not only for the real dollars at stake but also for their power to leverage other contributions. Mindful of the prevailing political discourse, the Americans for the Arts chief is quick to point out that the government is not subsidizing the arts but rather “investing” in what he calls their “public utility.”


Marketplace Terms


Increasingly, it seems, the case for public arts funding will have to be made in marketplace terms. Ivory-tower altruism and entitlement just won’t do.


The current NEA chairman, former Broadway producer Rocco Landesman, brings a timely entrepreneurial spirit to his post. His leading-edge catchphrase – “Art Works” – signals his belief in the arts as an integral component of the larger economy. In Sacramento, the California Arts Council raises more than half of its modest $5.1 million budget from the Arts License Plate program. The plates were designed by painter Wayne Thiebaud. The council’s new director, former cable television executive Craig Watson, has mused on the possibility of selling a million plates and raising $40 million for the arts in California.


Purists might flinch at the notion of the state peddling Thiebaud license plates to fund the arts. But purism is an unaffordable luxury in today’s environment. Now it’s all about finding strategies that could pass even the most demanding corporate boardroom test.


Published in San Francisco Chronicle.

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