Considerations when Arguing for Government Support for the Arts in the US

I do not mean to get on a 'policy kick' but revisiting my policy course from last year encouraged me to read Arts in the World Economy, which is a selection of essays from the Salzburg Seminar, which took place in December 1993. While not the newest text concerning this issue, a large part of its content remains relevant. In particular, the essay by J. Mark Davidson Schuster caught my attention.  I would like to review and discuss its contents here. Professor Schuster, who died in 2008, was professor of urban studies and planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a specialization in urban cultural policy. He also served as a consultant to the Arts Council of Great Britain and the National Endowment of the Arts. In his essay, he compiles the list of arguments used for, and against, government funding of the arts in the United States.

He frames his essay by opening with the comment that it cannot be assumed that government support for the arts is desirable in the United States because in the US, it is assumed that support for culture* is a private matter.  In many parts of Europe, including Finland, it is a public matter.  This dichotomy between public and private, I believe, has ramifications for not only how the arts are funded in the US and Finland, but also who participates and what kind of art gets supported and produced.  The biggest source of funding for the arts in the US are individuals, not corporations, and certainly not the government. In the League of American Orchestras "Orchestra Facts", this was shown from the orchestral perspective, with the majority of income coming from individuals in both earned income (tickets sales, subscriptions, CD sales, etc) and contributed incomes. Nor can it be assumed that there is general agreement that the arts are even socially desirable. Schuster argues that any policy trying to argue for increased public funds has to begin with a proven premise that the arts are social desirable. This is not as simple as it sounds, when considering that in any population, around the world, the audience for artistic goods is not usually the majority. However, an 'ideal argument' for government support of the arts must begin here.

*Schuster, echoing most policy practice, especially in the US, uses the terms arts and culture somewhat interchangeably. Breaking down these terms and their usage will be discussed at a later time, especially in reference to the current art sociology literature. 

As needed background, Schuster defines the five ways that governments implement policy: owning and operating, incentives and disincentives, regulations and standards, legal rights and responsibilities, and information (Schuster, 44).  That's it.  And in order to justify the use of public money, a proposed polity have to demonstrate specific, tangible goals that can be achieved through one of these methods, and within what time frame, requiring the expertise of social scientists, economists, arts administrators, politicians, etc. It made me realize, at least, that simply giving more money for the arts is both a vague and impossible request, and one that might not serve the specific goal one wishes to accomplish.  Most artists would argue against the government ownership and operation of artistic institutions, but this situation exists successfully in various countries, such as with the opera houses of Italy or Germany. Most often problems will arise from the government suddenly cutting budgets due to changes in the global economy, like in Italy and Germany in the 1990s, not any censorship or authoritarian issues as I would have imagined (although these happen as well). Both the US and Finnish governments use predominately incentives and disincentives to support the arts, in the form of grants, subsidies, tax provisions, etc. The scale on which each country does so, however, is quite different, as is the method. From my understanding, the Finnish government relies primarily on subsidies and grant to support the arts, whereas the US gives much less in this form, but focuses more on tax provisions that are offered to organizations that are declared 'nonprofit'. Government policies that involve regulations and standards address the import and export of artistic goods, which concerns mainly distribution, in the economic sense.  Implementation through legal rights would include, for example, the extensive copyright legislation in France that establishes new rights for creative artists. The final method, information, serves as a suggestion of what others should be doing, like a publicity campaign. Information policy in the US is used mostly, I think, at the regional level to promote attendance and tourism, but one can argue that the National Endowment of the Arts operates, in part, as information policy.

In justifying public monetary support, most policy makers will make some sort of economic claim. Schuster summarizes and analyzes the four main categories of economic arguments: efficiency, equity, preference distortion, and merit goods (Schuster, 46).  Economic efficiency concerns the market, arguing that "if the market for artistic goods and services is not quite working correctly", public intervention is required to fix it (Schuster, 46). Equity economic policies work, for example, to bring down the cost of participation so that people are given more equal opportunity to participate. This type of policy occurs in the US, whereby certain types of concert tickets for artistic performances are not taxed, or taxed differently, in an effort to allow performing arts ensembles to keep ticket prices lower. Preference distortion arguments state that public funds should correct against individual preference distortion that could result from things like education or socialization patterns. Finally, the merit good arguments, some of the most common, simply say that the arts are inherently good (economically and ideologically), and this justifies economic support. 

Regarding efficiency, Shuster puts forth the following: "Markets, through their emphasis on the needs and wants of individual consumers, account for the private benefits, not the social benefits, of consumption. Whenever social benefits exceed private benefits, a good will be under produced unless supplemental, extra market resources can be brought into the production of the good" (Schuster, 46-47). The issue then becomes: if artistic consumption is considered a private benefit, then the market should be able to account for it. On the other hand, if the arts are considered a social benefit, then the artistic products public goods, which should be provided to all without payment and without ones participation affecting the enjoyment of any other person. One good example is public architecture. Trying to argue the arts as a public good this way is difficult because first, it is weak to simply say more of a particularly artistic product is better and second, most artistic products are both private and public in their nature. Also included in many efficiency arguments is 'economic spillover', which refers to the economic benefits that effect other industries (ex. tourism, food, transportation, parking). While this spillover from the arts is considerable, Schusters thinks that the economic spillover argument has "run its course" (Schuster, 48). He believes that while the arts sector made a good case and it has been a successful argument in the past, the economic impact "game", as he calls it, is fraught because there will eventually be another industry that can come and prove its impact is larger, prompting the economic support to move elsewhere (Schuster, 48). Therefore the economic impact ('spillover') argument cannot be the sole argument when justifying government support for the arts.  I do think, however, that it should be included, especially when arguing for specific policies, or specific project support, on a regional level.

The equity argument is a very prevalent one in both the US and Finland. For example, the NEA focuses a great deal of its efforts on ensuring greater access to the arts for "underserved" populations (my policy report 2 posts ago) and in Finland, there is currently a huge nation-wide research project in arts education called 'Arts Equal'. Studies have shown, however, that it is very difficult to change the demographics of an audience, and economically, "the demand for various arts activities appears to be inelastic; the demand just does not change very much with changes in price" (Schuster, 49). In that regard, efforts in the US and elsewhere, to increase participation through ticket pricing or offering free admittance, probably will not alter the audience demographic in the long term, and therefore would not be considered a successful program to counter inequality. To counter this, many government arts agencies in the US have tried to change how they define the goal of equity. Not only has there been a move to redefine equality in terms of access, rather than participation, but the definition of arts has been broadened to include minority arts and other types of artistic disciplines. As a result, the number of participation have increased in the US, but the demographics, especially when it comes to specific art forms, have not. While both of these efforts, increasing access and expanding the definition of art, are not inherently bad, they do present a bit of a problem. First, the idea of access versus participation could be identified as major difference between Finnish and American public support systems for the arts. Participation includes encouraging people to change their habits, either through greater arts education, earlier arts education, or outreach efforts (ex. the League of American Orchestras reports), while ensuring access does not necessarily fundamentally change anything. Arts Equal in Finland, for example, looks at equality in arts education and its impact, versus the NEA efforts that promote greater universal access to the arts (see the NEA "Annual Report" or "Strategic Plans"). Second, and a bit more relevant to my own research, increasing the definition of arts, like using the term culture instead of art, ignores the aesthetic value differentiation that one finds in the different artistic disciplines. Forsaking difficult or challenging art for more comfortable art forms but simply categorizing everything together could have detrimental affects on the sustainability of certain artistic practices and the involvements of particular aesthetic values. This is certainly a conversation to be continued when discussing the different values of different kinds of art in relation to sociological and theoretical texts.

In combining the equity and preference distortion arguments, many have argued that the government should work on behalf of changing peoples tastes, or rather, ensuring that preferences are not distorted by the absence of information (i.e., in education). While this is sound, Schuster says the problem is that determining results will take a long time, and it is very difficult to prove that any improvements, say increase in attendance, are the direct of arts education initiatives (Schuster, 51). Also how would you define if the policy was successful? Educators, artists, and sociologists would argue that there is general public benefit and life enrichment, but this is incredibly difficult to quantify in a government funding scenario. Public policies tend to focus on short term (1-year) benchmarks, so a policy that relies on equity and preference distortion would have to be designed in such a way that results could be accurately tracked in a short amount of time. The education argument also tends to lead into the merit good argument, which like the social desirability aspect, must be included in any argument to justify government support in the arts, but cannot be relied upon solely, nor assumed to be universally accepted.

It would be impossible to speak on the issue of economic arguments without addressing the "cost disease", referring to the work of Baumol and Bowen, authors of the influential Performing Arts: The Economic Dilemna. Both Joshua Fineberg and Sheldon Morgenstern, amongst many others, refer to Baumol and Bowen in their arguments that the arts will never be economically self-sufficient and need increased government support. Schuster, however, sees Baumol and Bowen's conclusion as much more subtle: "it suggests that if a society decides on other grounds that the performing arts ought to be supported, then it ought to expect that support is going to be expensive, and increasingly so" (Schuster, 52). Invoking Baumol and Bowen also does inherently argue in government support, since it does not argue that the support is justified. Baumol and Bowen merely explain that the arts cannot be self sufficient in and of themselves. Therefore, Schuster says, the 'on other grounds' aspect of the argument is needed.

Finally, there is a group of 'political' arguments that are being used to call for increased government support of the arts based on voter sovereignty and political power instead of consumer sovereignty and economic power. The most basic is the "median voter" argument, which is proposed by Burton Weisbrod in The Nonprofit Economy (Schuster, 52). It argues that the government will do what at least 50% of the population wants it to. This might work in certain countries, but is a bit naive in the US, land of lobbying groups and corporate interest. But those who invoke voter median arguments will make use public opinion polls and pollsters in their cases. While not a bad way to go, Schuster reminds readers that in the history of the US, government support for the arts has come from interest group policies, not 'the majority'. All over the world, powerful (and wealthy) groups yield their political power and those who benefit the most tend to be those with the highest education and income levels, the same people whose tastes are most likely to support the arts. So while the government should be the voice of the people in a democracy, it cannot be ignored that presently in the US, it is the powerful minority that have historically supported the arts, both at the individual but also the government level. Furthermore, it is likely that the majority of Americans today would not vote for increased arts funding at the expense of other fundamental needs like healthcare or social security.

The second major political argument that Schuster includes is one that has its roots in promoting national identity. In fact, the NEA was created in the Cold War era and in the midst of Cold War politics, and takes great efforts to support art as an aspect of American identity. In the book The Reluctant Patron: The United States Government and the Arts, 1943-1965, author Gary Larson writes that the creation of the NEA should be viewed as a response to the launch of Sputnik by the USSR (Schuster, 53). In smaller countries, national identity is particularly important in order to protect indigenous languages or art. In the realm of the performing arts, literature, and theater, promoting works by national figures can be seen in this regard, and in this instance, is in practice in both the US and Finland (to varying degrees). However, when trying to define national identity artistically, for sake of politics, it can have terrible consequences. And in the US, there are many that believe that the arts "do not play a role in defining and sustaining national identity and their support is not necessary to promote social cohesion or shared values", despite the efforts of the NEA (Schuster, 54).

In his essay, Schuster presents the predominant economic, political, and ideological arguments that are used to justify increased government supports for the arts from the American perspective. It is his view that a good argument relies on not only proving that the arts should be supported, by secondary arguments of the economic or political nature. These criteria can be used to not only draft good arguments, but to analyze existing policies, as well as the different policies used by different countries. The choice of argument, and the language employed, can reflect differences in artistic/cultural ideology and can have a huge difference on artistic practice.


Lucy Abrams