Do the Arts Need the NEA?

Published February 7, 1995

The National Endowment for the Arts is fighting for its life, as newly empowered Republicans in Washington have targeted the NEA for extinction. Many artists are angry about this possibility and believe that only ignorance or malevolence can explain it. Are opponents of the NEA simply Philistines? Or are there compelling reasons to oppose federal arts funding?

Because the arts are so essential to civilized society, each of us should carefully weigh the issues involved before deciding whether or not federal arts funding is a good idea. In particular, we need to consider two important questions: Can the arts survive without public funds, and ought government to fund the arts?

Can the arts survive without public funds?

The evidence strongly suggests that the arts would survive nicely without government’s help. This year’s budget for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) amounts to $167.4 million. Private giving to arts organizations, by contrast, exceeds $9 billion per year, more than fifty times as much. Even if we were to add the $213 million appropriated for the arts by state governments in 1992, total public funding (less local government support) would still amount to only slightly more than 4 percent of private arts giving.

So the arts are already surviving with hardly any public funds. Grants from individuals, foundations, and corporations are responsible for a substantial portion of arts organizations’ budgets. And in many cases, the arts earn their way by selling a product that people value.

The Central Opera Service, for example, reports that 21.4 million people attended opera performances by nearly 1,300 opera companies in 1989. According to the American Symphony Orchestra League, in 1991 the nation’s 1,666 symphony orchestras performed for 22.3 million concertgoers. That same year orchestras grossed $702.5 million, $412.1 million of which was earned through the sale of tickets and merchandise.

In 1989 opera companies and symphony orchestras spent more than $1 billion. Yet NEA grants to music-related activities (which includes recipients besides opera companies and symphony orchestras) in 1989 totaled only $15.3 million–less than 2 percent of opera and symphony expenditures.

The arts, it appears, are not dependent on public funding. Losing what little public funds arts organizations now receive would have a generally minimal impact on their programs.

Ought government to fund the arts?

It’s unfortunate that some conservatives have chosen to focus on a few controversial artworks that received NEA funds, leaving us with the impression that the primary objection is not public funding per se, but rather the offensive nature of NEA-sponsored art.

Some NEA-sponsored artists have without question crossed the boundaries of good taste. But good taste has never been an essential component of great art. Would the NEA have refused a grant to Sophocles? The story of Oedipus, who unknowingly kills his father and sleeps with his mother, is hardly family entertainment.

The controversy is doubly unfortunate because it has obscured the magnificence of much that the NEA has helped to bring about. Although the NEA is by no means beyond reproach, most government funds go to quality programs that receive rave reviews.

People who are offended by certain publicly funded artworks are right to object to footing the bill, but they don’t take the matter far enough. Government should not fund the arts for one simple reason: We should not require those who choose not to patronize the arts to subsidize those of us who do.

Proponents of the NEA argue that public funding is a bargain- basement investment in culture; each of us spends less than seventy cents to keep the NEA afloat. A bargain, perhaps . . . but only for those who value the NEA’s product. For everyone else it’s just one more tax increase. Or as the Chicago Tribune’s editorial page rightly points out: “Any amount of money would be objectionable–just as it would be if Congress voted to give ‘pennies per person’ to your neighbor’s church.”

Eliminating the NEA would not come without consequences. Some arts organizations around the country may suffer short-term setbacks as they try to make up for the missing federal funds. So how would the arts respond to such a challenge? By soliciting extra support from the people and organizations who value music, theater, dance, literature, and the visual arts.

Requiring that people pay for what they use is a long-standing democratic principle. Just as we shouldn’t force opera-lovers to subsidize professional football teams, neither should we expect sports fans to subsidize the opera.

——————————————————————————– Lee Kessler is an editor at The Heartland Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy research center. He is also a clarinetist with a degree in music from the University of Pennsylvania.