At first glance, Republicans and the world of the arts might seem like the strangest of bedfellows. After all, the arts community’s general and public disdain for the conservative movement is always only one Shakespearean allusion away, while the right-wing blogosphere routinely includes people who make art among their list of causes for the impending collapse of society. It’s no secret that artists tend to lean politically to the left, but even the sole congressional initiative to support the arts, the Congressional Arts Caucus, is overwhelmingly composed of Democrats. Publicly, Republicans and the arts world could not operate in a more obtusely arms-length manner.
Behind closed doors, however, these two star-crossed cultural movements never miss a chance for a quiet tryst, especially when it’s financially lucrative. Despite the ideological sour grapes involved, the American art world has long been absolutely riddled with wealthy Republican financiers making large contributions to major public institutions. In 2008, for example, GOP godfather David Koch pledged $100 million toward the renovation of the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center (home of the NYC Ballet), a building now named for him. In 2013, Libertarian billionaire Larry Ellison leased his famous Japanese art collection to the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. In 2015, Citadel CEO and Marco Rubio funder Ken Griffin donated $40 million to the Museum of Modern Art. These aren’t outliers. Some people claim that Republican money is privately keeping the art world alive.
There may be no family that sums up this complex, often hypocritical relationship better than the Devoses. The most infamous member of this clan is, obviously, Betsy Devos, Trump’s widely ridiculed Secretary of Education, seemingly intent on arming elementary schools to ward off errant grizzly bear attacks. What many may not realize is that when Devos isn’t busy gutting unions, spreading the word of God or reminding us that “nothing in life is free” (except her multimillion-dollar inheritance), she and her family are quite active in the arts world. In 2010, Betsy and her husband, Dick, donated $22 million to the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, to endow its Arts Management Institute. Her family also founded and funds ArtPrize, a renowned international arts competition that takes over the streets of Grand Rapids, MI every fall. ArtPrize’s website incessantly reminds us all that it is “free to the public,” “open to anyone,” and facilitates “public discussions about art.” The Dick and Betsy Devos Foundation even lists the arts among one of the key community programs it attempts to cultivate. Surely, these must be the sign of a Republican who understands the necessity and importance of public art and arts education.
Not so fast. Devos is part of an administration proposing a $9.2 billion cut to the Department of Education, including a $27 million cut to arts education programs. Devos is currently being sued by multiple former students of a fraudulent, for-profit arts institute for freezing the implementation of student loan forgiveness programs meant to hold abusive higher education institutions accountable. Fraudulent arts education programs will likely benefit from this freeze, while arts students holding useless degrees will face back-breaking student debt. When Devos was confirmed in February (in a tie vote broken by Vice President Pence), a statement from Americans for the Arts included this:
Ms. DeVos’s confirmation process raised the possibility of support for policies that may negatively impact arts education.
Devos’ disdain toward arts education is right in line with modern conservatism. Despite her and other Republicans’ endless bemoaning about how “nothing is free,” they seem to have completely bought into the notion (literally) that free, public art is crucial to society. They stress just how important it is that art remain open and uninhibited. At the same time, they never miss an opportunity to ruthlessly attack any public funding aiming at actually training, protecting or investing in artists: witness perennial Republican hostility to the National Endowment for the Arts, which the Trump administration still wants to scrap.
For all of the private money that Republicans pour into “free” public art, why do they despise public programs meant to assist aspiring artists? The answer remains blandly ideological: government funding, they argue, is an inefficient means to accomplish anything, let alone bankrolling useless and unwanted arts projects for decadent coastal elites. “After all, government hinders creativity,” you can hear your local conservative Republican say, “and wouldn’t the free market provide for better art funding?”
Of course not. Instead of freeing artists from creative hindrance, a purely free market presents the same fundamental problem that artists have had for centuries: when having to rely predominantly or solely on wealthy benefactors, artists will tend to make the art that sells to those benefactors. Museums do this now, tending to emphasize displays appealing to high-end patrons. Van Gogh, Kafka, Poe — history is riddled with artists and creators lacking wealthy benefactors in a purely free market, artists who went unseen, under-developed and under-compensated during their lifetimes. Entirely private sponsorship of the arts would ensure similar names are added to that list in the future. As for creativity? Look no further than “Piss Christ” to rest assured that public funds can push boundaries in art. And it is art.
Another benefit of public involvement is that it can leverage private dollars. The NEA claims that its 2016 initiatives generated more than $500 million in private support. Devos should know the truth of that: a substantial percentage of ArtPrize’s funding comes from public-private sources.
As for the ever-amorphous “liberal elite” being the only ones benefiting from publicly funded arts or arts education, 40% of NEA-funded projects take place in high-poverty areas; 36% of NEA grants go to organizations that reach veterans and people with disabilities and in institutions; and a third reaches low-income audiences. Under 2015’s “Every Student Succeeds Act,” the Department of Education requires students across the country to receive arts and music education, including in low-income areas. Looser regulations during the George W. Bush administration too often allowed arts education only to flourish in high-income school districts.
“Liberal elite” is one canard; “coastal bias” is another. Significant portions of the arts education funding initiatives of the Department of Education and the NEA focus on supporting and developing arts programs in rural communities. By contrast, it is estimated that only 5.5% of private philanthropic arts donations go to rural areas. Without public funding, artists and arts education programs will begin to even further cluster around a few major cities. This will strangle creative development in, ironically, the most staunchly conservative regions of the country.
Devos and other wealthy Republicans who style themselves patrons of the arts ultimately have a choice to make. If they keep gutting government funding for arts education, removing federal regulations meant to protect artists, and destroying public arts projects, they will lose the future: their supposed love of art will be for naught if they strangle the next generation of great artists. If Republicans are willing to abandon free market principles to support nonprofit arts institutions, they should abandon free market principles for the artists whose work fills them up.