Arts Funding and Apple Pie

Saturday, July 02, 2011 - 07:36 AM

Opera singer Leontyne Price smiles while she is awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon Johnson Leontyne Price is awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon Johnson (AFP/Getty Images)

As our nation again celebrates its birth and, with that, the best of who we all are as a people, I have been watching our leaders wrangle about the national budget and give alternative views of our values and priorities. Last time I checked, the proposed funding for the National Endowment for the Arts for fiscal year 2011 is $155 million dollars. This comes out to not quite 51 cents per citizen, or a little more than the cost of a postage stamp. One Raptor F-22 military aircraft costs about $150 million and Donald Rumsfeld ordered 24 of them in 2004.

I know I will be preaching to the choir when I tell you that it is important for government (which is, after all, by-for-and-of the people) to support the arts. It is our representatives doing what we want them to do.

So I am going to give you some reading material and things to ponder over the Fourth of July weekend.

  • An interesting article and download on the role of the arts in educating America can be found here.
  • Part of a May 28 press release from Americans for the Arts which assessed the impact of Gov. Sam Brownback vetoing funds for the Kansas Arts Commission.

"During the KAC’s 45-year history, Kansas’ nonprofit arts and culture sector has become a booming industry—one that generates $153.5 million annually in direct statewide economic activity. This spending–$80.3 million by nonprofit arts and culture organizations and an additional $73.2 million in event-related spending by their audiences–supports 4,612 full-time equivalent jobs, generates $95.1 million in household income to local residents and delivers $15.6 million in local and state government revenue. With modest grants to non-profit arts groups, the KAC has been the driving force in establishing arts and cultural organizations in many of Kansas’ most rural communities, providing all citizens, not just those in large urban areas, with access to quality artistic experiences.

"Further, the KAC received a matching grant of $778,200 from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in 2011 to support Kansas jobs, artists and cultural groups. That funding is now lost for 2012 with the elimination of the KAC, the only agency in Kansas that is eligible for the NEA’s matching grants. Kansas also loses the $437,767 the KAC brought in from its regional partner, the Mid-America Arts Alliance. This $1.2 million funding shortfall far exceeds the $689,000 KAC appropriation recommended by the Kansas legislature during budget negotiations."

To which I would add that we might not have had Samuel Ramey, Joyce DiDonato (right) and Alan Held as leading opera singers had they not been exposed to the arts in their native Kansas. They might have come to us all the same, but the odds are greater of inspiring art when young people have contact with it. I know that my late friend, Kevin Oldham, had early support and encouragement from the KAC, resulting in the composition of great music in his short life, including a piano concerto that I believe will gradually join the standard repertoire.

It strikes me that a city, state or nation that casts its lot with the arts can justify that choice (which is to say, expenditure) from many points of view. In a future post I will recount to you the impressions I gathered in Austria, a nation that has cast its lot with the arts. We know that young minds develop more fully when music, language and visual arts are part of the mix. No one denies that. So this favors intellectual development and brain functioning. This will make for more productive workers and, perhaps, fewer incidences of dementia later in life.

We know that the arts inform, instruct, challenge, soothe and inspire people of all ages. Funding the arts does not require that everyone become an artist. It is not about politics unless we make it so. Years ago I heard Newt Gingrich try to make the distinction between “serious” arts and those that were not. It is a slippery endeavor to do that, but he did include opera among the serious arts and spoke in favor of supporting opera. I think he even referred to Rigoletto as an example of what to support with public funds. I agree with him, even if Rigoletto is not exactly a “family values” kind of work. Yet it is about human nature and is a mirror of many lives, with the addition of fabulous music.

The elder George Bush is known to like opera, even if he -- in the search for votes -- publicly stated his admiration for Loretta Lynn (whom I also like as a singer even though she said she preferred Bush to Dukakis because she could not pronounce the latter’s name). I met Nancy Reagan twice at the Metropolitan Opera and she genuinely enthused about the importance of supporting the arts. Betty Ford danced with the Martha Graham troupe and Gerald Ford believed in federal and state arts support.

We know that government-sponsored international tours of American artists such as Louis Armstrong and Leontyne Price in the 1950s radically enhanced our national image abroad, including nations that were considered our enemies. I find it interesting that these African-American artists were honored abroad but had to face segregation and discrimination at home. These initiatives happened during the administrations of Democrat Harry Truman and Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower. The latter admired Churchill’s statement, when it was proposed that arts funding in Great Britain be cut during World War Two, “Then what are we fighting for?”

The national movement for government support of the arts got rolling thanks to Jacqueline Kennedy with strong backing from Eisenhower and, later, President Lyndon Baines Johnson. But it was President Richard Nixon who really expanded government support of the arts, whose educational, spiritual and diplomatic value he grasped. He played the piano for Pearl Bailey, whom he appointed as part of the American delegation at the United Nations. She later endorsed Gerald Ford in part because Ford and his wife believed in supporting the arts.

The arts are not Republican or Democratic. They are American. They will be our legacy as a civilization long after we forget who our politicians were. They unite us and they describe us to the rest of the world.

Right now, British Prime Minister David Cameron seems to have forgotten Churchill’s dictum and is slashing money from the small budget in the UK. One of the most important and haunting Web sites I have seen in a long time was created to document what is vanishing artistically in Britain and what might yet disappear.

Please ponder all of this and send your thoughts not only to your own legislators but to those who are saying we cannot afford 51 cents per citizen for preserving and advancing civilization. What are we fighting for?

Photo credits - Joyce DiDonato: ©Sheila Rock - Sir Winston Churchill: AFP


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Comments [7]

Kathryn from Boston

I agree with Fred's comments, but would like to add another thought:

I was educated in middle-class public schools during the 1960s. This had to have been the heyday of arts in school. There was chorus and glee club (not to mention singing at assembly), band and orchestra, and music appreciation and studio art classes, at no further cost to families. At my state-supported women's college, where I received a superb publicly-funded education at low cost and had the opportunity to attend an extraordinary range of extra-curricular concerts and lectures, my music appreciation professor once scolded our class because only a few young women had attended an evening on-campus chamber concert he had required. "Why are you taking music appreciation if you're not interested in hearing live classical music?" he asked. Some of my classmates were indignant; they felt he was required to teach us what we needed to know during the assigned class period, and that their free time was personal. So isn't the question not only "how can we ensure that there is public funding of the arts?" but also "how can we create a society where people develop an independent love of the arts, and the intellectual curiosity to learn about them, even when opportunities are not immediately available?" It seems to me that the point of any sort of government support, whether it is welfare or medical care or arts funding, should be to create independent human beings, not to foster financial, emotional or intellectual dependence.

Jul. 04 2011 04:11 PM
bill from NJ

Also consider that the GOP has refused to cut defense spending, when much of what they are buying was for cold war era needs, and basically is a jobs bill for Middle and Southern America, where much of the defense plants are located (and needless to say, are generally pretty red). Up to 50% of the 700 billion we are spending on defense is simply to keep jobs in red districts, yet the arts are a waste?

Jul. 03 2011 09:30 PM
Billl D from nj

Not surprising, we have the tea party stupidity running rampant, where middle america and blue collar america is screaming about "wasteful spending" (yeah, 155 million for NEA is wasteful, but the fact that 45% of all health costs go to 5% of the people, many of them the older people who are so yelling top cut spending; not to mention middle america yelling this is wasted spending, while gobbling up 10's of billions in subsidies for crops and for ethanol that is nothing more then a government give away).

As far as the value of arts to education, to learning, it shouldn't be so surprising that the hard right wants to eliminate it. These are the people who support Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachman, whose claim to fame is basically being ignorant "real" people. Add to that the religious right, who view anything other then paint by numbers and goopy drippy Christian muzac as the devil's work of ungodly elitists, and it is no wonder. The fact that Kansas as a state has also attempted to ban teaching evolution and to try and have religious dogma taught as science should put this into focus.

Jul. 03 2011 09:26 PM
David from flushing

Government support of the arts is not necessarily the answer as it quickly can become a question of whose arts. If a city had a choice of having a free outdoor symphony concert or a free rock concert, which would the people [the voters] prefer? Would homeowners simply prefer having neither with a little tax savings?

You are not going to find a strong consensus today over what should be supported whether it be art museums with nasty nudes or "elitist" music. Europe may support theses things generously, but this country has a rather different tradition.

Jul. 03 2011 03:15 PM
Barry Owen Furrer

If memory serves, was it not during the Reagan years that arts funding was cut putting son Ron out of a job when he danced with ABT? Must have made for some interesting dinner table fodder.

Jul. 03 2011 10:33 AM

A sobering message, Fred, for what seems to be an economic excuse for a legislative "Bonfire"....Oh say, can we see a day when the Pulitzer Prize goes to Bristol Palin's memoir.

Jul. 02 2011 03:35 PM
Scott Rose from Manhattan

The GOP elephant has almost no cents in being penny wise and tons and tons of excess weight in being pound foolish.

Jul. 02 2011 01:01 PM

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