The Coming Backlash Against Artists and Arts Funding

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This post is on the multiplicity of challenges we’re facing in arts funding. First, in my recent essay for the Fox Forum, I argued that the perennial yo-yo in federal arts funding is a terrible, often tragic joke, and that while the proposed $50 million boost for the NEA may yet be passed as part of the stimulus package, it represents a big band-aid on a bigger, chronic problem, not a healthy, long-term, sustainable fiscal vision for the arts in the United States. Nor does it address the even more worrisome issue of the arts being politicized when things get tough, generally by the ultra-right, or whenever it feels politically expedient. Indeed, a backlash against the arts is coming. Mark. My. Words. Teresa Eyring, are you listening?

Consider this amendment to the stimulus bill offered by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK):

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None of the amounts appropriated or otherwise made available by this Act may be used for any casino or other gambling establishment, aquarium, zoo, golf course, swimming pool, stadium, community park, museum, theater, arts center, or highway beautification project, including renovation, remodeling, construction, salaries, furniture, zero-gravity chairs, big screen televisions, beautification, rotating pastel lights, and dry heat saunas.

You can read everything Coburn wants to have stripped from the stimulus bill here.

Well, quite naturally many groups are mobilizing over this amendment, but as they scramble, as they hurriedly herd their sheep into pugilistic position, none of our arts leaders, I feel, are really thinking in publicly articulated, creative ways about the long-term questions of arts funding, and that is why, in my Fox Forum essay, I intervened in this non-discussion by refloating the idea of a truly independent NEA. Randy Bourscheidt, are you listening?

Every year it’s another fight, another restatement of the economic-impact case that somehow seems insufficient and, indeed, inefficient, another charade of industry and sector leaders going to legislators with their hands out and arguing in a way that sounds like begging. It’s pathetic.

And this is nothing. Consider this story from the Feb. 5 issue of the Boston Globe:

….While the NEA money is a minuscule portion of the $819 billion House bill, it has become a lightning rod for some critics, who question whether the dollars for the arts will create many jobs – and who see the money as a symbol of House Democrats trying to lard up the plan with spending wish lists that have been pent up for years.

The criticism has reached such a crescendo that some arts advocates are concerned that the push for the $50 million could backfire, reigniting a debate over the value of taxpayers funding everything from “poetry out loud” events to community theater.

….Representative Jack Kingston, a Georgia Republican, wants to transfer the proposed NEA funding to highway construction. He failed to get the House to vote on his proposal, so he is now trying to get on the conference committee that will determine the fate of the funding. “We have real people out of work right now and putting $50 million in the NEA and pretending that’s going to save jobs as opposed to putting $50 million in a road project is disingenuous,” Kingston said in an interview yesterday, adding the time has come to examine all of NEA’s funding.

Such criticism has revived memories of how the GOP-led House in 1997 voted to eliminate the NEA. The agency survived the controversy after a compromise was reached to slash its funding. The agency has made a comeback in recent years and the budget has gradually increased. The proposed additional $50 million – on top of $122 million already set aside in this year’s budget for grants – would put the NEA in its strongest financial condition in years.

Advocates for the funding say there is a historical resonance to the proposal, reviving memories of the way President Franklin D. Roosevelt supported the hiring of thousands of artists, writers, painters, and photographers as part of the New Deal.

Dana Gioia, a poet who was NEA chairman until last month, recalled that when top Roosevelt aide Harry Hopkins was asked why the government wanted to hire so many artists and writers, he replied, “Hell, they’ve got to eat just like other people.”

Gioia, reflecting on that comment, said, “As far as I’ve heard, nothing has changed about the dietary needs of artists.”

Bob Lynch, the head of the national advocacy group Americans for the Arts, said the recession is threatening the performance schedule – or even the survival – of a number of arts organizations, estimating that 10 percent are at “serious risk.”

The NEA cites Labor Department statistics showing that the unemployment rate across the broad range of arts-related occupations was 6 percent for the fourth quarter of 2008, about the same as the entire workforce, but that unemployment was far higher in some fields, including 46 percent among actors and 19 percent among dancers. The Labor Department says about 2 million people work in the arts, but advocacy groups put the figure several million higher.

But opponents of the funding say that many groups of workers don’t receive special funding. Brad Dayspring, a spokesman for Cantor, said the provision “uses taxpayer dollars on NEA programs instead of common-sense tax relief targeted to revitalize small businesses and create jobs for middle-class families facing economic challenges” and “fails to meet the standard necessary to be included in an emergency economic recovery plan.”

This should strike fear into the hearts of anyone who cares about the arts, because it reveals a truth that our arts advocates are too timid to state out loud and which the rest of us seem to have forgotten: when Republicans get cornered, they lash out at artists. And as for the reference to Roosevelt, read my Fox Forum essay — I said this first. Bob Lynch, are you listening?

So, while the NEA may get its funding boost, all it’ll do is stir the pot of anti-arts sentiment. (I mean, for heaven’s sake, read some of the 100-plus comments my essay received on the Fox Forum. It’s as if most of those people didn’t actually read what I wrote.)

Meanwhile, this isn’t far from a federal issue. This week, I received an email from Norma Munn, chairperson of the New York City Arts Coalition. It’s quite long, but it’s important reading for all of her constituents:

Over the past three weeks, I have spent five days in Albany seeing Assembly and Senate members to discuss the proposed mid-year budget cut to NYSCA and the upcoming budget for the new fiscal year starting April 1 for the State.

Here is the outcome of this week. It is a long memo, but there is no quick way to genuinely inform you.

Mid-year Budget Deficit Modification
The proposed decrease from Governor Patters of just over $7 million to NYSCA was passed late Tuesday night as part of the larger budget deficit modification. This, as most of you know, eliminates almost all of the current year remaining money at NYSCA. The result is that no money remains for applications that were approved at the December Council meeting. (That meeting also included applications from the October meeting, which was cancelled.)

However, the legislature also included language in the deficit reduction bill that directs NYSCA to fund first all those applicants whose grants had been approved by the Council, but not funded in the current year, in the upcoming next fiscal year starting April 1 before any new applications are considered. (The legal language is different; this is what it means.)

Translated, this means is that all those approvals from December Council meeting are pushed into the next fiscal year. In view of the horrific impact that being zeroed was going to have on those grantees, that is potentially good news for them.

However, there is as yet no budget for April 1, and even if the budget passes on time, it is not clear how quickly any money could be actually paid. Personally, I would not count on any of this money being paid before the late summer.

Budget for Upcoming Fiscal Year
New York, like many other states, is counting on getting some money from the Federal stimulus package. No one knows how much, so real decisions will not happen until that issue is clear. (Even if a stimulus package passes this week, it will not be immediately clear how much money NYS receives, nor precisely what “conditions” are attached, so do not expect instantaneous results in Albany.)

Secondly, the stimulus package is not going to fill the entire budget gap of $13 billion that the State is facing, so the question of tax increases has to be faced. No legislature liked to increase taxes, and they won’t do that quickly or easily.

Last, the impact of the deficit modification described above was to push $7 million dollars of spending from this year into next year. That will reduce the funds available for next year’s regular applicants by $7 million.

The current proposal from Gov. Paterson is for NYSCA to be funded at $38.9 million for grant money. Spending $7 million for grantees held over from this year would leave NYSCA with just over $31 million in funding for the normal applications for the year.

Two things. This was not a recommendation from NYSCA. And only one legislator with whom I spoke after the deficit reduction bill was passed, fully understood the impact that moving this year’s grantees into next year could have on the larger picture.

Should next year’s budget be passed at the level that Governor Paterson has recommended, the cut to NYSCA would be roughly 40%. In essence the deficit reduction bill doubled the cut for next year.

That is not acceptable, even in this very difficult budget year. Changing that outcome requires you to take action – NOW.

Legislators did not intend to do harm for next year. I assume they are hoping that somehow the stimulus package money will be sufficient for them to restore funds to NYSCA. I certainly hope so, but regardless of that, NYSCA cannot be reduced to funding levels of the early 70’s. No other state agency has in my 22 years of being an advocate for this field been reduced by 40%, and no other state agency is being reduced in the upcoming year in that way.

There are programs within agencies that are being reduced at these levels and in some cases, more, but not an entire statewide agency.

We want both the funds from the current deficit plan restored for next year and the proposed decrease from Gov. Paterson rejected. In short, we want NYSCA funded for $54 million in Local Assistance (grant dollars) plus the $5.5 needed for administrative costs.

Advocacy is essential to getting every state legislator to really understand what all this means. I spent yesterday going through this with everyone with whom I had a meeting, and only one recognized the unintended harm to next year’s budget before it was explained.

You have to help if this message is to be truly heard across the five boroughs. Please write, call, and meet with your Assembly and Senate member in the next two-three weeks here in NYC. Going to Albany is not necessary, and in fact, the legislature in not even in session the week of Feb. 16, so seeing them in NYC is probably easier.

They have to hear what this kind of decrease will cause to happen locally. The economic and human impact here in their district is critically important to getting them to restore funding to NYSCA. You can tell them that every dollar from NYSA is multiplied 700% for the state based on the McKinsey study from the late 90’s.

The cultural sector generates jobs in the tourism sector, one of the State and City’s largest industries. You can point out the increased restaurant business when performances take place, or how many employees use their paychecks to pay the rent, buy groceries, etc. But please do not overlook the human and transformative aspect of what you do.

I describe the arts as like yeast. We cause a lot of good things to happen, including generating huge sales taxes for the state and city, but none of those funds come directly to us. We can only get a share of that impact through public funding, and that means from the State Council on the Arts. And, it is counter to every effort to keep the arts in NYC and NYS to enact cuts of this size. In the changed economic climate, when a diverse economy is even more essential, losing parts of the arts is a really bad choice.

If this sounds like too much, please keep in mind that it is almost impossible to restore this level of decrease in less than five or six years, and during that time we are just playing catch up. So, it is not just for one year, it is for a very long period if we don’t defeat this reduction.

We need a long-term vision. We need to acknowledge that the annual pleas suggest that the single most potent part of our message — the fiscal impact of the arts — simply isn’t getting through. And this must, must, must be about more than a one-time $50 million boost to the NEA, and must be about more than the list of comprehensive recommendations handed to the Obama transition team by the leaders of 16 arts-service organizations. When there are people like Rep. Kingston in the world, people with an active and aggressive antipathy toward the arts, we must use the strongest weapon we have, which I believe to be the fiscal-impact argument. Clearly, we’re not being effective enough. Arts advocates, are you listening?

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Leonard Jacobs

Leonard Jacobs is Founder and Executive Editor of The Clyde Fitch Report, and owner and operator of Clyde Fitch, LLC, a media and information company at the nexus of arts and politics.