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Smith: Should states control arts funding?

By David Smith, Baylor University
March 14, 2009

In the $787 billion economic stimulus package signed by President Barack Obama, $50 million was set aside for the National Endowment for the Arts. Even though it’s a tiny percentage of one of the largest spending measures ever passed by Congress, opponents singled it out as emblematic of the bill’s overreach, and of its paying for programs they say are of little effect if broad economic stimulation is really the goal. Those who fought to include it, however, say it’s crucial because the situation facing arts organizations is no less dire than any other sector of the economy. The $50 million amounts to a badly needed infusion of emergency cash for important institutions struggling to stay afloat.

Now the question becomes how best to distribute the money in a way that will help the arts where they need it most. If the money is really intended as an emergency step to preserve some institutions that are facing bankruptcy, there is one effective way to do it: The entire $50 million needs to be sent directly to state arts agencies, and they should be the ones to determine where the money goes. State arts agencies in places like Austin, Phoenix and Raleigh are in a much better position than is the NEA to know the effects the economic crisis is having on institutions in Texas, Arizona and North Carolina. State arts agencies can get this money quickly to local institutions for which it could mean the difference between a shortened season and a canceled season.

But, in true Washington fashion, the NEA doesn’t get the final say on the matter, as Congress put spending stipulations into the bill. The bill says that only 40 percent of the money will be sent out to state agencies while the balance remains with the NEA, where, presumably, institutions that need emergency funding can all go ahead and start to queue up.

Given the extraordinary circumstances that justify the bill, it’s worth repeating that the windfall is not for the National Endowment for the Arts; rather, it is to be channeled through the NEA. The NEA might well deserve a larger budget, but to justify it because of the economic downturn is to undermine the rationale for higher budgets when the economy returns to form. If the NEA deserves more money, it deserves more money because the arts are important to the national fabric all of the time, not because of a transitory economic downturn, severe as its effects may be. Nor is it proper to use the crisis to create a larger or more centralized apparatus for the arts within the federal government, as some are endorsing.

Basing changes to the NEA on a temporary economic downturn is to lessen the attention given to the arts (and, not incidentally, the rationale for more money) when the good times return. And there’s a historical precedent for such faulty thinking. As everyone knows, or will soon be told by an arts backer, in the depths of the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal earmarked a significant amount of money for artists to paint, to photograph and to write about the contemporary American experience. It led to much wonderful art. But because the government designed the arts programs of the WPA as employment measures in response to the Depression, it sowed the seeds of disappointment when it shut its doors in 1943 and all of the arts programs came to an end.

For the symphonies and theater groups facing economic trouble today, ameliorative measures do not require a nationally directed effort to bring about the best results. The NEA should resist the natural bureaucratic temptation to add the money to its existing coffers and instead quickly pass it to the states, taking as little as absolutely possible from the total sum. This is perhaps not the way things are usually done, but, as we are told, this is not a usual situation.

Smith is senior lecturer in history.

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