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Public Funding for the Arts: 
Inadvertent Social Engineering?

As a former employee of a public arts funding agency, I witnessed the sausage-making process of making funding decisions. It's not a pretty sight. Limited resources mean decisions have to be made to fund or not to fund. The criteria, while codified, ultimately include an aesthetic judgment that necessarily infers the relative worth of one artistic entity (be it an organization, project or individual) over others in competition for the same dollars.

Questions arise: What resources should be committed to supporting art that is not popular? Does art deserve to be supported if there are not sufficient patronage for it to survive on its own merits? Conversely, should we not fund certain arts just because they're not popular? Is it not an important function of public funding to ensure that unpopular arts survive? Who decides all this if not the marketplace? And what are the unintended consequences of competition?

Should box office drive repertoire? 

In a recent edition of the (London) Guardian, it was reported that school children in Britain are spurning the opportunity to learn the less glamorous musical instruments (notably the trombone). A spokesperson for The National Foundation for Youth Music (UK) averred that "the whole orchestral bass range was under pressure as children and parents chose cheaper, less cumbersome and more soloistic instruments such as the flute or clarinet."

The paradigm for arts presenters has been to create programming that will attract numbers and keep the organization alive, but is that what art should be about? Do we risk devolving art into mere entertainment? The ideal balance is to have such a strong clarity of mission that the public (and boards) will stand in line to sign on. A charismatic leader is often an essential part of the mix. 

The arts, especially performing arts, are always on a precipice of funding. Most of their income arrives after the expense of creating and presenting the work. If for some reason it is not well attended or sponsors don't come forward, which can happen for myriad reasons beyond their control, they can find themselves in a serious deficit situation that can risk their very existence.

In the Netherlands the government guaranteed a market for the works of professional artists (apparently defined as anyone who creates work and has no other visible means of support). If no one else would buy their work, the government paid them for it. This was commonly referred to as the "Dutch treat". They had a huge warehouse full of art that wouldn't sell. This assured the survival of artists, but it also assured the creation of a lot of bad art.

An argument can be made that anyone with extraordinary skills ought to be supported in some way in order to assure that those skills survive and are available if needed. Does that include world champion bubble gum blowers? Should we consider it a priority to assure that someone will always know how to fix typewriters? Should huge resources go to a symphony orchestra at the expense of a couple of dollars for a gourd painter who may give up her art without it? Or should we abandon the orchestra to assure the survival of many smaller artists?  (It reminds me of the question: Which is the worse karma; to kill one cow that will feed a village or to kill 50 shrimp that will feed one or two people?) Someone at some point has to make the aesthetic decisions.

This is not trivial. Public money, while often a small portion of the budget, is normally leveraged in several ways to provide a foundation for the economic health of an organization. The imprimatur of  government funding is often sufficient to trigger foundation and other grants and provides a credential of legitimacy. The decisions made by arts councils and grants panels are often a matter of life or death to organizations, both small and large, with impact far beyond the relatively small number of dollars received. 

Should art be competitive?

My core belief is that cooperation is always better that competition in any endeavor. I like to watch figure skating, but I'm annoyed by the competitive need to criticize every little error to the detriment of the artistic experience. It is obvious that skaters do a much more artistic job when they are not performing in competition. Why would it be any different for a pianist? International music competitions are high-stakes games with major career implications for their participants. It is certainly possible to objectively judge technique, but what about interpretation? Who decides that one interpretation is qualitatively better than another? Why do we even have to rank artists? Is there not a better way to launch a career? 

The importance of the panels process

The diverse makeup of adjudication panels for grants and other artistic competitions is critical to assuring support for diverse arts in a community. By and large, grants funding agencies take great pains to assure a diverse and objective mix of panelists. But no panel is equally qualified to assess every application. If there is no expert in digital arts on a 2D or mixed media panel, a digital artist will be at a disadvantage. Likewise if a representative of a given artform is not a strong advocate, there can be imbalance.

There are checks and balances in these processes that result in an overall fairness that is really pretty remarkable. But what's fair is not always what's best for the artistic health of a community. A fair distribution of resources does not necessarily assure diversity. 

There is no easy answer to this. The only obvious solution is to have sufficient public funding available to ensure the survival of all the arts in a community so that the hard decisions don't have to be made.

-Dwight Newton, 9/12/02