BY JOANNE BERNSTEIN
“May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.”
—President John Adams, upon moving into the new White House.
All of us who are passionate about the arts are repelled by our new administration’s promise to eliminate the NEA, the NEH, and government funding for PBS. We know that cutting cultural budgets has nothing to do with saving money, but rather it is the reaction of philistines in the Executive branch and Congress who are somehow immune to the power of art to move the soul, lift the spirit, and expand the mind.
What has the NEA meant to the arts in America and what will be the meaning of its loss?
In his famous ordering of national priorities, John Adams, the second president of the U.S., said that he had to study politics and war, so that his sons could study mathematics and philosophy, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, and architecture. Whether Adams intended his generational hierarchy to be literal or figurative, it was nearly two hundred years before the United States government committed itself to a program of sustained, direct support for the arts.
The NEA was signed into law by Lyndon Johnson in 1965 with merely $20 million in grants, but with Johnson’s declaration that: Art is a nation’s most precious heritage, for it is in our works of art that we reveal to ourselves, and to others, the inner vision which guides us as a nation.
It is this view of art as precious, as a guiding vision, that has represented the true value of our governmental arts agency.
In 2015, the NEA received funding of $148 million, which amounted to a mere .004 percent of the federal budget, or 46 cents per American. The combination of federal, state, and local funding realized by U.S. arts organizations has been less than 5 percent of organizations’ annual budgets over the years.
Clearly, direct government support has never been a critical factor to help arts organizations survive, or even thrive, in the U.S.
In contrast, in Continental Europe, Australia, and Scandinavian countries, subsidies from national, regional, and local government agencies make up about 60-90 percent of total revenues for most orchestras (and other types of arts organizations). In Canada and the United Kingdom, government sources provide 30-40 percent of orchestras’ revenues. Arts organizations in these and other countries are heavily dependent on their governments for their very existence.
The U.S. government, by offering tax deductions for donations to nonpr0fits, gives significant indirect subsidies for gifts from private individuals and corporations. Although U.S. arts managers have long been envious of the substantial direct support their foreign colleagues receive from their governments, the U.S. system has an inherent flexibility the the others do not. When one major private donor or foundation ceases making contributions, the organization has many other funding resources to explore and court. However, in most other countries, when the governments slash their cultural budgets, arts managers have nowhere else to turn, as private philanthropy for the arts barely exists outside the U.S. (It follows that the loss of indirect subsidies could have a highly damaging effect on arts organizations, as well as on all the other nonprofits in the U.S. It remains to be seen what President Trump and his supporters in Congress will do to the tax code in this regard.)
In the U.S., the arts have blossomed on their own, without government intervention. The nation’s first permanent, independent, and disciplined orchestra, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, was founded in 1881 by philanthropist Henry Higginson who asserted that he alone was responsible for the orchestra’s concerts, both financially and artistically.Other orchestras soon developed in a similar manner. A cultural emphasis began to surge in the 1930s with courses in art and music being taught in all major universities and radio broadcasts of music to towns large and small. In the 1950s, major foundations began infusing millions of dollars of capital financing into the infrastructure of the nation’s arts organizations.
In the thirty years from the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s, the arts sustained rapid and persistent growth. In 1955 the arts received $15 million in contributions from foundations and corporations; by 1990 that amount had increased to $500 million. From 1965 to 2010, the number of professional orchestras in the United States increased from 58 to more than 1,200 (including community orchestras); opera companies from 27 to more than 120; dance companies from 37 to 250; and professional resident theater companies from 12 to more than 1,400. In addition, there are literally thousands of nonprofit presenting organizations that engage artists and groups to perform in their halls: youth symphonies, university theaters, dance groups, and more. A promotion boom that began in the 1970s made arts attendance more accessible and compelling to greater numbers of people, and expanding attendance levels stimulated the growth of new and larger performing arts organizations. The visual arts enjoyed even greater growth in attendance numbers; in 2015, there were more than 61 million visits to the 215 art museums in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico (according to the Art Museum Directors of America).
All this has been accomplished by compelling art and fine artists; by talented, highly professional arts managers who do so much with so little; by donors who infuse the organizations they cherish with donations large and small; by tireless, committed volunteers, and by the passionate audiences of millions of people who treasure art-going experiences.
We lovers of the arts will make our voices heard loudly in resistance to the elimination of the agencies that represent some of humanity’s best and highest values and that speak to how we view our nation and want it to be viewed by others. And we will continue to nourish the world of arts that provides us so much nourishment, as has been done in this country with or without the NEA. It is up to us to guarantee that the arts will thrive and prosper, whatever the “official” decree.
“Art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstones of our judgment.”
— President John F. Kennedy
Joanne Bernstein is an author, consultant, speaker, educator, arts manager, and the author of Standing Room Only: Marketing Insights for Engaging Performing Arts Audiences.