State of Arts in America

A Missed Opportunity
Since the middle of the 20th Century, the American philanthropic community has helped build some of the best cultural institutions in the world right here in the United States. America’s philanthropists, however, have not built a similarly dynamic, powerful support structure for American artists. This missed opportunity would have strengthened American creativity, strengthened American communities, strengthened American diversity and therefore, strengthened America’s democracy!

Currently, America’s non-profit arts industry generates a $134 billion economic impact. That’s impressive! It’s quite understandable, then, that with on-going support of cultural institutions and new support of individual creative artists, art can be the source of even more social, political and economic capital in the 21st Century.

Deficits and Cutbacks
Today, however, America’s cultural institutions as well as national, state, and local budgets face serious deficits. Arts programs have been drastically impacted with major cutbacks and even total elimination of state arts councils. Some of the reasons can be attributed to the following: a slow economy; unbudgeted costs imposed by a post 9/11 world; misallocation of funds; misguided funding priorities; underestimating the power of culture as a force for democracy and human dignity; and, ideological opposition to public funding of the arts. (See Below; Trouble in River City.)

In March 2003, while over 9 million visitors attended Denver area cultural venues in 2001 compared to 7.5 million visitors to ski resorts and 5.3 million to sports events, Colorado voted to eliminate all its arts council funding. (Source: Los Angeles Times, March 2003)

In spite of its powerful ability to impact the world with its cultural products, California is a frequent leader in slashing arts funding. The California Arts Council’s budget will in fact drop by nearly $20 million from $30.7 million in 2000-01 to a low of $11.5 million in 2003-04. Similarly, at least 42 of all 50 states have significantly cut funding for arts programs with more cuts likely by 2003-04 in all the 50 states. (Source: Los Angeles Times, March 26, 2003)

Misallocation of Arts Funds
To further complicate the issue and compromise what arts funding there is available in California, in 2002-03, nearly $2 million in Arts Council funds were allocated by the government and legislature to underwrite a program called “Tools for Tolerance” that trains teachers and police on diversity issues. The program has nothing whatsoever to do with the arts and should not have come from state arts funds. This misallocation of funds reflects a negative perception of the arts and their value to the cultural well-being of California. (Source: Los Angeles Times, March 26, 2003)

The priority of state arts councils should be to directly support the creation and presentation of works of art. That means, of course, awarding grants and funds to individual creative artists and worthy non-profit venues and arts organizations.  In California, however, arts production accounted for less than 4% of the 2000-01 budget, arts presentation received a little more than 11% of the budget and 85% of the same 2000-01 budget went to support the large institutional bureaucracy. (Source: Los Angeles Times, March 26, 2003.) 

NEA Favors Institutional Support Over Individual Artists
During the last two decades, the National Endowment for the Arts has experienced drastic budget cuts and been targeted for elimination by elements in Congress who believed the NEA supported “obscene” works of art that had been created by recipients of NEA grants. Throughout the 1990’s, the funding of art and the funding of arts education became a very controversial issue and Congress responded by virtually eliminating most grants to individual creative artists in favor of funding arts institutions and programs.

While the NEA may remain suspect to some of the general public, over the past five years, NEA Chairman, Dana Gioia, has labored diligently and intelligently to improve the agency's image. Upon becoming the new chief in 2003, Dana presented his agenda by stating, "I plan to serve (the NEA) by building a huge new consensus to support the arts. I am not going to do that by dividing people, by polarizing people. Arts education is not a left or right issue, a Democrat or Republican issue. It's good civic common sense." (Source: Los Angeles Times, April 4, 2003)

Some time ago, Chairman Dana Gioia announced that there was a new NEA. He and his team had successfully brought the agency out of years of controversy and into a new consensus. As a result, NEA appropriations from the federal budget were up to $124 million from a low of $99.4 million with $128.4 million requested for the year 2008. (Source: CNN)

Trouble in River City
Over forty years ago, in 1964, Congress declared that the encouragement and support of the arts, while primarily a matter of private and local initiative, was also an appropriate matter of concern for the federal government. But, to carry out this obligation to support the arts is a task as challenging today as it was then.

According to Nina Totenberg’s April 2003 radio broadcast on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), as well as National Public Radio (NPR) and the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) are all in danger of being eliminated by the current Administration. If the Supreme Court supports Congress, it may, in effect, be the end of them all. “In spite of major cutbacks in funding and efforts to reduce costs and streamline services, government officials believe that the funding currently going to these programs is too large for something which is seen as not worthwhile!”

Crucial Time for Public Support of Individual Artists
The multicultural, kaleidoscopic nature of America continues to grow so rapidly that as the 21st Century evolves, the arts will reflect a society that cannot yet be defined. Since government funding remains political and volatile, public support for the arts will be at the core of America’s artistic growth as the needs of individual artists are more fully addressed. In recognizing the importance of creativity to society, it is apparent that there is an interdependency between artists and institutions. Creative artists are the mainstay of cultural life and the people on whom cultural institutions depend for their own existence and vitality. If creative artists are the people whose efforts will shape America’s cultural identity and provide America’s legacy, surely it’s time to build a powerful support structure for creative artists. By doing so, American creativity, American communities, American diversity and, therefore, America’s democracy will all be strengthened!