“It is not enough that people have freedom of speech; they must also have mechanisms for meaningfully expressing and debating it. Public arts funding is deeply valuable because it encourages societies to be diverse, intellectually alive, inquisitive and realistic. It furthers the discourse societies need to fully express their communal and national identity and place it in the rest of the world. It furthers our ability to heal and help. It furthers our well-being, freedom of expression, and pursuit of happiness. Public arts funding represents the deepest American ideals.”
-William Osbourne, A Personal Commentary on American and European Cultural Funding
Prevailing free market economic theory as applied to cultural institutions dictates that the market should choose what succeeds and what fails – this idea is manifested in comments surrounding funding for PBS in the recent presidential debates, during which Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee for president, implied that PBS should find a way to pay for itself. The problem with a culture that is completely dictated by the marketplace, particularly as that marketplace manifests itself in the US, is that it severely limits freedom of expression and will often reward ubiquity over quality. The marketplace does not, for the most part, reward cultural innovation; this is evidenced by the fact that major cultural institutions who are struggling to stay afloat often resort to re-presenting the same works again and again, rarely premiering new works by living artists. In the music world it is Beethoven and Mozart (sometimes we are enticed to come hear rarely played works by these composers, but it is always these composers), in the ballet world it is Swan Lake and the Nutcracker, in the theater world it is Shakespeare or one of a long list of Broadway musicals.
The other problem with a free market cultural model is that commercial art often becomes cost-prohibitive; concert tickets for popular music artists and Broadway tickets (two financial models that are arguably sustainable) start at $80 or more with fees. For the vast majority of people these prices are prohibitive. The prevailing belief in the cultural sector (with some glaring exceptions) is that art should be democratic, by which it is meant that art should be available and accessible to all.
What has come about in the United States is a model where the arts are primarily funded by philanthropic minded individuals, and secondarily by an ever decreasing pool of federal grant money. Arts organizations find themselves spending as much or more time cultivating donors and pursuing grant money as they do developing programming and supporting artists. Individual artists are in an even more dire situation since there is very little funding available for them.
So artists are frustrated, and justifiably so. At every turn they are met by a rising cost of living and decreased support for the work that they do. Choreographers find themselves unable to pay their dancers, designers, and collaborators, dancers are unable to find paying jobs, and consequently both find themselves spending less time in the studio developing work and more time at unrelated jobs that pay their bills. Instead of cultivating globally respected artists we are discouraging cultural innovation.
So what can we do about it? Because we can do something about it. We are lucky enough to live in a democracy and as long as we have the capability to educate ourselves, as long as we can pick up a phone and ask our representatives to make this part of the legislative dialogue, and as long as we can get ourselves to a voting booth we can affect change. Every two years Americans for the Arts produces a Congressional Report Card in which they rate Congressional representatives based on their voting record on arts related issues. It is telling that the only voting on arts related legislation since 2008 were two bills proposing cuts to the NEA budget. The arts are also notably absent from all presidential platforms (including the Green, Libertarian, Justice, and Constitution parties’ candidates), but you can find a comparison of the two major candidates’ positions on arts and culture thanks to The Chronicle of Philanthropy.
Voting is important, yes. Being an educated voter is equally, if not more important. But we must also remember that our voices extend beyond the voting booth. If your representative has a poor record on arts related legislation, call them and tell them that it makes a difference to you how they vote on issues pertaining to the arts (you can find your representative and how to contact them at www.contactingthecongress.org). The arts will not enter the conversation until we make the arts part of the conversation.
This is a call to action. This is a beacon of hope. We can do this, but we must do it together. We must be courageous, we must be vigilant, and we must be relentless advocates. But above all we must believe in what we do and why we do it. We must not lose faith in ourselves or in the work that we are perpetually struggling to create. And above all we must not lose faith in our resounding capacity to create change in the world.