I have wanted to write about this idea for a long time. The recent discussion on the Forum page makes me think this is as good a time as any.

How should we fund the arts? Currently the arts in this country have three principal sources for funding: government support, private donations and ticket/sales receipts. In an ideal situation, all three of these sources would be seen as valid components to building a healthy culture. The problem is finding the right balance.

But that question is for another day. Right now I’m confining myself to one facet of the problem: how can federal support for the arts be funded more consistently and with greater benefit to the general taxpayer?

As currently structured, the National Endowment for the Arts relies on the good graces of politicians to vote for its budget every year. In other words, it’s not an endowment, it’s a line item. As many musicians are painfully aware, it’s very difficult to run any enterprise if you can’t plan more than one year in advance. Next year might be business as usual; the year after, your budget might be cut in half.

The solution? Turn the NEA into a real endowment.

Here’s a plan: Quintuple the NEA budget for five years. Over the course of those five years, invest 4/5 of the budget.

Then, after the five years are up, eliminate arts funding from the annual federal budget, and let the NEA operate off of the income from its investments.

Downside – From what we’ve been told, quintupling the budget would be way too costly – we can hardly afford the budget we have. But it’s really not as difficult as it sounds. We don’t even have to touch the 450 billion dollar defense budget, which of course is being spent very wisely.

Here’s what you would have to do: ask every US citizen to contribute $1.65 a year for five years. That’s all it would take. After that, the tax bite would be zilch.

Upside -
- NEA budget would be stabilized and predictable, relatively speaking, for the long term, and reflect the general health of the economy.
- NEA resources that are currently employed in making the annual case for survival could be put to running the NEA more effectively. As someone who is annually involved in the process of making that case on a state level, I can testify that it’s a huge drain of resources that could otherwise be spent on art.
- The endowment fund (roughly 2.4 billion) could be invested in the national economy, which would help everyone.
- After five years, the NEA would no longer be portrayed (falsely, but effectively, in my opinion) as a burden on taxpayers.
- People who are so inclined could always make tax-deductible gifts to the NEA endowment, so that it could grow through private support over time.

Again, this isn’t meant to solve all of the problems of arts funding, just one nagging difficulty. I figure there must be some legal reason why this plan won’t work, and this blog is the best place for me to find out. If you know of a reason why it isn’t possible, please let me know in the comment box below. I’m not so interested in philosophizing about the benefits and drawbacks to federal funding – with which we are all familiar — as I am in learning about any legal obstacles that might exist. I figure even if this is politically impossible in the USA, it might be made to work elsewhere.

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