Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Arts Commission shutdown?

The Appropriations Committee of the Virginia House of Delegates voted on Feb. 21 to eliminate the Virginia Commission for the Arts and state grants to cultural entities. Arts groups are mounting a crash campaign to save the commission, which "this year is handing out about $3.9 million in state grant money plus another $1 million in federal funds to 700 grantees," Teresa Annas reports in The Virginian Pilot of Norfolk:


The budget submitted by Gov. Bob McDonnell proposed cutting the commission's funding by 26 percent, on top of a reduction of about 30 percent made in former Gov. Tim Kaine's administration.

The full House vote on the proposed budget is scheduled for Feb. 25.

UPDATE 1: More from Zachary Reid and Tyler Whitley in the Richmond Times-Dispatch:


UPDATE 2: The Roanoke Times' Mike Allen and Tad Dickens count the potential costs to Roanoke and Southwest Virginia from an Arts Commission shutdown:


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For some years, I’ve been conflicted on the question of government support for the arts.

A thriving cultural sphere is integral to a civilized society, and government ought to play a role in maintaining civilization. In this country, that role is fairly recent – the National Endowment for the Arts was established in 1968, and most state arts agencies came into being in the NEA’s wake – and in dollar terms it’s a pretty minor role: The NEA is funded at about $150 million in a multi-trillion-dollar federal budget; most state arts agencies disperse a few pennies per taxpayer.

In exchange for this small-change taxpayer support, arts groups are vulnerable to hostile scrutiny, and occasional harassment, from politicians and interest groups who know little about and care less for creative endeavor. Telling these people what they really should be told – buzz off (or less polite words to that effect) – isn’t possible as long as the arts are subsidized with public funds.

If you believe that creative people should cast a critical eye on society, and especially on those who would impose their "values" on the rest of us, you might reasonably view government subsidy as a means by which hostile forces can constrain and censor creativity – and do so at bargain prices, considering the small sums being given out.

That’s a big-picture view, though.

The more immediate concern is that arts groups are under serious-to-severe financial stress. The recession has ravaged fund-raising and earnings from endowments. Localities have already slashed grants for arts organizations, as well as school arts programs that indirectly benefit them. Sudden elimination of state and federal funding – money from the feds is contingent on money from the state – could push many groups deeper into the red and force some to shut down.

Public funds in various guises account for 5 to 10 percent of the operating budgets of Virginia’s largest arts groups. The percentage is higher, in some cases much higher, for smaller groups and those in rural areas and small towns. They would be the first casualties of an arts commission shutdown; but the fallout would soon hit artists and groups that have benefitted from the commission’s tour program and other "outreach" initiatives.

Saving the Virginia Commission for the Arts is necessary, for both tangible and symbolic reasons. Doing so would head off damage that is way out of proportion to the state money at issue. Saving the commission, however, would be a short-term victory in a conflict that isn’t going away.

Artists and arts groups should wean themselves from taxpayer subsidy, and the ideological pressure that seems inevitably to come with it, as quickly as possible. Any group that remains dependent is poorly managed and faces a painful, perhaps fatal, reality check.

The campaign that Virginia’s arts groups should be mounting (and that would require more than a few days of frenetic activity) is one that mobilizes private support for the idea that creative endeavor yields the immediate benefit of improved academic performance, and the longer-term benefit of laying a foundation for a thriving information-based economy.

These are not airy-fairy notions – they are supported by hard data, from student test scores to the choices that high-tech firms make in locating headquarters and plants – but they present the typical politician with too many dots to connect. The people who need to be convinced, and mobilized, are the corporate and community leaders whom politicians are loth to cross.