Looking Back: A History of Public Funding for the Arts

Government has almost always supported the arts. Until the 19th century, however, government support was synonymous with aristocratic patronage, a system in which the purveyors of the expensive arts (music, painting and sculpture) were relegated to servant status. Even when commissioned by wealthy bourgeois patrons, the artist's dilemma often rested on how to channel personal creativity in order to create an acceptable product. It was an elite, wealthy buyer's market, and few artists consciously chose to starve in order to retain their creative integrity. So what's different today in America? Simply this: We live in a society that values artistic freedom of expression and has been willing to subsidize it. To begin with, the government allowed the arts to share the tax advantages of non-profit status with other kinds of charitable institutions. And over the past 32 years, through the National Endowment for the Arts, the federal government has provided direct and indirect funding for individual artists and artistic programs from the national to the municipal level.This current government support and aristocratic patronage share certain characteristics -- notably the fact that someone (like the NEA) has to judge artistic merit and quality to determine who does and does not receive support. And many Americans perceive the NEA as the promoter of "high art" for an elitist segment of society similar to the aristocratic patrons of the past, even though the agency is continually seeking to be as inclusive as possible about what constitutes art.At the close of the century, this paradoxical situation for the arts has put the entire process of public arts funding in jeopardy. In "American Canvas," a report issued by the NEA only a few weeks ago, broad-based panels from six cities provided frank input on all aspects of the arts, from how they are perceived by the general public to proposals on what can be done to encourage citizens to see themselves as stakeholders in the arts and thereby provide expanded sources of revenue. Americans are divided into two camps on the arts funding issue: those who demand that the arts be answerable to the marketplace and those who believe that the arts face a sharp decline in quantity and quality unless they are helped in part by public funding at federal, state and local level. To understand the origin of these battle positions, let's first examine the history of federal funding for the arts.Federal Support: A Long Time ComingIn the United States, government support of the arts has always been controversial, even when the money was for the architectural beautification of the nation's capital and art for public buildings. During the 19th century, several proposals were made for the establishment of commissions or federal offices for the fine arts; none of them ever made it out of committee. Even the National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian Institution were founded with private money.President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Federal Theater Project, the Federal Art Project and the Federal Music Project in 1935 as part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Through these organizations, designed to salvage the arts during the depths of the Depression, the federal government enlisted more than 40,000 writers, fine artists, composers and performing artists. Federal funding disappeared at the start of World War II. But many local arts organizations across the country still in existence today got their start with WPA support, among them Raleigh Little Theater.After the war, despite several more abortive congressional proposals, the arts were given no direct federal support, although arts organizations still had non-profit tax status. Pioneering states, like North Carolina, stepped into the breach during the 20 years between the end of the war and the establishment of the NEA. The N.C. Symphony, although started with private money, became the first such organization to receive funding through the state legislature, and the N.C. Museum of Art was the nation's first state-funded art collection.Since the birth of the NEA in 1965, both public and private support for the arts has increased dramatically. This fact not only gives the lie to the idea of the NEA as a kind of federal welfare for artists and arts organizations, but also shows how monetary support has been a public-private partnership. For every dollar the NEA grants, $11 are raised through local foundations, corporations and private resources. The endowment never awards unilateral grants, always requiring matching funds from other sources. By the same token, in the words of President Ronald Reagan, the Endowment has served "in catalyzing additional private support, assisting excellence in arts and letters and helping to ensure the availability of arts and scholarship." Grant recipients are chosen by review panels made up of recognized experts in each granting category. In its 32-year history, the NEA has also continually redefined and broadened its concept of art and the variety of kinds of support, gradually including programs in arts education, traditional arts and the arts in rural communities, as well as those for making the arts accessible to elderly and disabled individuals and to minority constituencies.Although the idea for the NEA originated in the cultural idealism of the Kennedy era, the greatest increase in NEA funding took place during the Nixon administration. For 24 years, NEA operated without controversy, until the first public attacks on it in 1989 -- led by our own Sen. Jesse Helms. He and other right-wingers objected to what they termed "pornographic" and "sacrilegious" photographs appearing in NEA-funded institutions. The outcry against these "obscene" works produced a rapid decision by Congress to ensure that all federal arts funding proposals did not violate the 1973 Supreme Court ruling on obscenity. This signaled the beginning of the intense public scrutiny of government arts funding that persists to this day.While eagerness to erase the national debt has led to severe reduction of appropriations for many federal programs and projects, the vote this March by the House of Representatives to eliminate the NEA was clearly an ideological decision. Even during the recession of the 1980s, the NEA's budget was cut by only 10 percent. Since 1984, despite increased controversy about the arts and concern over federal spending, the endowment managed to remain steady, and even grow, in terms of appropriations until 1995, its 30th anniversary.But when these appropriations are adjusted for inflation, the pool was actually steadily shrinking. And in the past three years, the decrease in federal arts funding has become precipitous, declining from $162 million in 1995 to $99.5 million in 1997, not allowing for inflation. As predicted, the Senate has resuscitated the NEA from its House-imposed deathblow, but for how long?

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