If you’ve been following the stimulus bill, you probably know two things: It includes $50 million for the NEA, and on Tuesday the Senate Democrats announced that they don’t have the votes to pass it and they’re looking a ways to cut it down. John Gizzi at the conservative publication Human Events reported tuesday that, in a press conference on Monday, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs indicated that cutting the NEA funding was not likely. I’m not sure about Gizzi’s interpretation of Gibbs’s statements, but as they say: interesting if true.
Also on Tuesday, Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) took a bold stand against rotating pastel lights when he offered an amendment which would prohibit stimulus spending in a variety of cultural areas:
“None of the amounts appropriated or otherwise made available by this Act may be used for any casino or other gambling establishment, aquarium, zoo, golf course, swimming pool, stadium, community park, museum, theater, arts center, or highway beautification project, including renovation, remodeling, construction, salaries, furniture, zero-gravity chairs, big screen televisions, beautification, rotating pastel lights, and dry heat saunas.”
– Page S1462 of the Senate Congressional Record
The big question, of course, is whether $50 Million to the NEA for economic stimulus is a good idea or not.
Greg Sandow makes a good case against it. His key points are that $50 Million for the arts is $50 Million not going to something like health care; that arts funding would go mostly to support an industry that primarily serves the relatively prosperous; and that a backlash against the stimulus arts money might harm other non-stimulus arts funding. Ultimately, Greg’s case is much the same as a more general case against governmental arts funding, and one which needs to be taken seriously. We do need to ask ourselves whether the government can afford to spend even a dollar on arts funding as long as kids are going to bed hungry, people are dying because they can’t afford healthcare, schools are graduating students who can’t read, and so on. There are good arguments on both sides, and while I remain conflicted on this issue myself I usually end up feeling that arts funding is a legitimate government expenditure as long as the spending is handled the right way. It’s inevitable that government will spend money on some things that are a lower priority than other things which are themselves not optimally funded, and the arts are important. But that’s mostly a conversation for another day. Let’s stipulate for the moment that federal arts funding is worthwhile. Let’s also set aside the very real risk of a backlash. Under those assumptions, the question is whether money for the arts is good policy in an economic stimulus package.
As I understand it, the basic strategy for a stimulus package is to look for projects on which the government can spend money which will result in immediate economic activity and/or job creation. And as long as you’re spending money, you try to pick projects that you would like to see happen anyway, but you only pick projects which are genuinely likely to stimulate the economy. There’s been a lot of talk, for instance, about investing in infrastructure projects like high-speed rail, but apparently we’re so far behind in preparing for high-speed rail that there are very few “shovel ready” projects–we just haven’t done enough planning to start construction soon enough, and the construction is where the stimulus would happen.
Ben Adler, at the Atlantic, makes the case that the arts world is rich with shovel-ready projects. Read the whole thing, but here’s the money quote, as it were:
“The money for artistic projects is almost by definition ready to be injected into the economy. It may take years to draw up a plan for a highway, obtain the right of way and fend off legal challenges before the bulldozers start rolling. But to buy a canvass and some paintbrushes, or even some metal for a public sculpture, is comparatively straightforward. That puts quick money into the pockets of the companies that build, sell and ship those artistic materials as well.”
Adler is talking primarily about the visual arts, and adds that portions of the non-NEA stimulus might also be plowed into things like public art projects.
But not just any money put into the arts is realistically going to stimulate the economy, especially given that we’re only talking about $50 Million in additional money (ignoring for the moment the non-NEA sources which Adler suggests.) For example, many large performing arts organizations, faced with declines in fundraising and ticket sales and blows to their endowments which reduce the amount of endowment revenue, are feeling a significant economic strain, and many are presumably considering offsetting those losses with expenditures from their endowments. Additional federal funding to those organizations is likely to lead not to additional expenditures and economic activity, but to a smaller draw from the endowment, which will have little to no stimulation effect. And those large organizations, with their large and sophisticated development operations, are likely the best positioned to capture additional funds. On the other hand, there are doubtless thousands of smaller organizations, from museums to chamber ensembles, which are hurting badly and may be looking at canceling concerts, laying off staff, or folding outright. Large organizations can often afford to bear multi-million dollar budget deficits during lean times, but the margin between solvency and insolvency is much narrower for smaller organizations.
An additional influx of cash for a small organization would not only be immediately spent, producing economic activity, but might well save employees from layoffs or even mean the difference between life an death for the organization. In that sense, stimulus to small organizations could actually be leveraged–an extra $10,000 could protect many times that much economic activity if it saves an organization from going under. Or, on a less dramatic scale, suppose a few thousand dollars in stimulus money can make the difference between breaking even and losing money on a concert or a set of concerts which are at risk for cancellation: that few thousand dollars (or even a few hundred) could again protect several times its value in economic activity. The musicians and staff get paid for another concert, the venue gets rented, maybe the composers and publishers get paid, neighborhood restaurants get more business, cab drivers collect a few more fares.
But can the NEA be trusted to spend the stimulus money in an economically intelligent way instead of just an artistically intelligent way? I have no idea. Here’s the text of the relevant section of the stimulus bill:
“For an additional amount for ‘Grants and Administration’, $50,000,000, to be distributed in direct grants to fund arts projects and activities which preserve jobs in the non-profit arts sector threatened by declines in philanthropic and other support during the current economic downturn: Provided, That 40 percent of such funds shall be distributed to State arts agencies and regional arts organizations in a manner similar to the agency’s current practice and 60 percent of such funds shall be for competitively selected arts projects and activities according to sections 2 and 5(c) of the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act of 1965 (20 U.S.C. 951, 954(c)): Provided further, That matching requirements under section 5(e) of such Act shall be waived: Provided further, That the amount set aside from this appropriation pursuant to section 1106 of this Act shall be not more than 5 percent instead of the percentage specified in such section.”
As I read that, not may restrictions are place on the NEA by the legislation. “Fund arts projects and activities which preserve jobs in the non-profit arts sector. . .” seems relatively generic, so the allocation of the funds seems left to the discretion of the various agencies. If the funding doesn’t get traded away during the upcoming negotiations, then I would hope that the arts agency officers in charge of making awards will set some set of standards which successfully prioritize those organizations where it will do the most economic good.