Art heist: Government funding steals culture from public

Deborah Elson Contributor
Font Size:

Doomsday has apparently arrived in England, with the conservative government’s initiative to reduce the $876 million arts funding budget by as much as 40 percent over the next four years. The prospective cuts have incited the British media and its citizens into apparent fear of rapid decline into barbarian status.

According to “Billy Elliot” director Lee Hall, “what we are seeing is the end of a golden age – not simply for the theatre, but for much of what we’ve accepted as normal and civilized for 60 years. The assault on the welfare state isn’t a neutral act of fiscal prudence. It is deeply unfair.”

But what’s actually unfair is that the government provides subsidies using taxpayer money to a host of organizations and programs – and this happens in the United States just as it happens overseas.

Despite the growing deficit and a stagnant economy, Congress appropriated $759.4 million for the Smithsonian Institution, $3 million more than the 2009 level; $165.7 million for the National Gallery of Art, $43 million more than the 2009 level; and $161.3 million for both the National Endowment for the Arts/National Endowment for the Humanities, $6.3 million more than the 2009 level.

The government has no moral authority to collect money from all taxpayers so that only the people who choose to visit museums, symphonies, and ballets benefit. If people seek diversion, they should be free to do what they want to do, and at a cost only to themselves, not others. If people want to go to museums, they should be willing to pay an entrance fee, give a donation, or support the institution in some way.

There is no such thing as a free lunch, and in the world of art, where you mingle with the likes of Van Gogh, Renoir, and Picasso, there is certainly no such thing as a free museum visit. If you do not pay an entrance fee upfront, you pay the hidden costs through taxes.

In the same way, artists shouldn’t expect the government to fund their attempts to achieve fame. Is the government actually capable of identifying talent worthy enough of serious investment? Are government officials really knowledgeable about the artistic tastes of each and every citizen?

Centralized art planning also means that artistic endeavors are dependent on the power of the purse. The political and economic climates often dictate art budgets; therefore, Congress has the power to determine the amount and type of arts and culture in society.

Bureaucrats’ discretionary powers lead to the politicization of art and the determination of what work is valuable and important and what is not.

Perhaps most importantly, and most fundamentally, the government should not be involved in the art world because of what art represents. Behind a piece of art are the ideas, thoughts, concepts, emotions, and personalities of individuals, which the government has no right to regulate. The mind is the artist’s most important tool and should not be compromised by the state.

And while the American courts have held that if government chooses to fund the arts, it must do so in a manner that is consistent with the First Amendment, government participation in the discussion of art and culture will always divert resources that could be better used elsewhere.

So, will society crumble if government stops funding the arts? Absolutely not. Free market solutions will sustain and grow our culture.

Private philanthropy is alive and well – and capable of filling in for the government. Many people baselessly claim that private philanthropy is non-existent.  But Americans are very charitable in reality, giving $229.28 billion in 2008, according to Giving USA: The Annual Report on Philanthropy. Just recently, Warren Buffet’s successful efforts to encourage the world’s billionaires to donate their money have led to at least 38 pledges of money, some of which will likely be allocated toward sustaining the arts.

Permanent collections in prominent museums like the National Gallery of Art and the Phillips Collection in Washington DC, and museums across the country were originally donated by private citizens. Nowadays, people express interest in art through memberships, planned giving and sundry other ways.  Private arts funding should also be encouraged from foundations and corporations, which have proven their commitment to continuing the arts tradition in the United States and abroad.

We should pay closer attention to England’s culture war and see how we can improve arts funding in the United States. Sure, some will say that cutting art subsidies will ruin a long history of enjoying diverse forms of entertainment, but as Paul Gauguin, father of modern art, asked in regards to this topic, “who is being deceived here?”

Deborah Elson is a media relations professional in Washington DC.