The rather obstreperous column penned by Jeremy Gerard of Bloomberg News, reacting to new National Endowment for the Arts chair Rocco Landesman’s now-infamous interview with the New York Times, must be discussed.
Gerard is like someone from the Dark Ages when he sniffs at the economic impact of the arts. For Landesman to honor and celebrate such statistics, Gerard says, makes him less like
a game-changer than someone versed in a tired and dubious argument that goes like this: The arts should be funded because they generate income by providing jobs and supporting ancillary businesses, as when people attending concerts or Broadway shows hire babysitters, go out to dinner, park in garages and so forth.
If that’s the criterion for funding, however, the NEA should just support the Broadway producers and movie studios that employ the most people and sell the most tickets. They “work” on an economic level. Even there, however, it’s a flawed argument, because the numbers will never match those of businesses — legal, financial, service — that also provide customers for garages and restaurants, and in much greater numbers.
Calling the fiscal-impact argument “tired and dubious” is waffling, dissembling journalism: If your wish is to argue that such statistics are untrue, prove it. Cite rigorously rendered facts and figures that speak to the contrary. And if it is Gerard who happens to be tired of the fiscal-impact argument, perhaps he should remember that they’re not about him. Rather, they’ve been developed to remind elected officials who hands control the public purse that art does work — hence the reason why Landesman is right, not wrong, to employ “Art Works” as his mantra.
That Gerard fails to factor in the gigantic fiscal-impact of the regional theater system in the U.S. — and to leave totally unaddressed the economic impact of other artistic disciplines, such as music, dance or the visual arts — illustrates to what depths he’ll descend to dolly up his discussion. His regrettably imprecise use of the phrase “criterion for funding” is intellectually suspect: the fiscal-impact argument is the philosophical rationale for both maintaining and growing public funding, not a “criterion” for funding specific projects or distributing specific grants. No one sits at a conference table, to my knowledge, analyzing whether a potential nonprofit recipient should get $5,000, $50,000 or $500,000 based on whether it will generate $100,000, $1 million or $10 million of business activity. Downplaying the business activity itself, meanwhile, is baseless and ignorant. Does Gerard not know that Michael Bloomberg, whatever else one might say about him, was the leading individual living donor in the United States in 2008?
Now to the good part of Gerard’s screed. He writes:
Market-driven culture is all well and good, but it’s not what John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson had in mind when they laid the groundwork for a federal agency dedicated to the arts. They supported creativity that isn’t beholden to a bottom line. Not every artist will be Isaac Stern or Meryl Streep or Jennifer Bartlett, but for each one who makes it into the mainstream, a hundred more are struggling to move the form forward, creating a cultural identity. The payoff for encouraging them will rarely be measurable in economic terms.
So here’s a different strategy for the arts endowment. Take a leaf from the Broadway producers’ playbook. Create a public- private alliance to fund the NEA so it can really begin making the arts central to the lives of all Americans. Commercial producers pay publicly subsidized companies to get new shows on their feet before taking the plunge on Broadway. Such commingling used to be verboten; now it’s business-as-usual.
I say, do it on a grand scale. Just three commercial cultural industries — Hollywood studios, the recording industry and Broadway — together generate $20 billion in domestic sales annually, according to their trade associations. A minimally invasive tax of one-half of 1 percent would instantly add $100 million to the NEA’s coffers.
How thrilling that Gerard knows what went on inside the heads of our 35th and 36th presidents, as I certainly possess no such inside information. Could he perhaps tell us what Kennedy wanted for Vietnam, too? Sarcasm aside, if we’re going to institute a culture in which original intent is sacrosanct and evergreen, and the evolution of an idea is never possible, let us revert, then, to a Constitution in which people of color are considered three-fifths of a person as well. Original intent for the NEA — a tired and dubious idea.
More tired, more dubious is Gerard’s comparison of Stern, Streep and Bartlett to the hordes who’ll never match their success. This is a blithering argument, implying that unless you’re one of those three, you do not deserve to make a living as an artist and consequently do not deserve economic encouragement from the public purse. Put another way, let them eat Chekhov.
But remember, I said there was something good here. It turns out Gerard is in favor of unshackling the NEA from the tyranny of Congressional appropriations entirely, endorsing a “public/private” alliance. That’s precisely the right idea — the one I’ve been banging the drum about for the last six months.
Yet is precisely the wrong idea is to suggest levying a .05% tax on “Hollywood studios, the recording industry and Broadway.” Why not a .05% tax on Bloomberg News? Or Goldman Sachs? Or Exxon? Or Sotheby’s? Why should the areas of the arts Gerard cited be penalized for being successful (if they are) when the more impactful businesses he cites — the “legal, financial, service” companies that “provide customers for garages and restaurants, and in much greater numbers” are not?
School him, Rocco.