Can We Afford More Art?
The National Endowment for the Arts is the federal agency charged with “bringing the arts to all Americans,” but it seems unlikely that they will succeed since their current budget of $125 million represents only 42 cents per citizen per year.
We often hear that there is not enough money for the arts because funds are needed for social services, education, or health care. But the truth is that 42% of the $2 trillion federal budget goes to the military.
Since our 2007 military expenses were $874 billion, our arts budget of $125 million represents about one hour and 12 minutes of our annual military spending. What could we create with even one full day of peace where we could pay for artists instead of soldiers?
According to the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, if you had an expense account that let you spend $1 million dollars per day, it would take 2,391 years to spend $872.6 billion, the cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars so far.
For more facts and analysis of the federal budget, check out the National Priorities Project. They have many excellent charts that make it easy to understand how your tax dollars are being spent.
Obama Has One, McCain Doesn’t
Although history will judge the United States on the quality of our artistic expression, there has been almost no discussion of arts policy in the mainstream coverage of the current presidential campaign. When future generations look back at us, will the U.S. be honored for its cultural achievements? How will the candidates ensure that the U.S. is an enduring inspiration to the world?
There are substantial differences between the two candidates on this issue. Barack Obama has assembled a National Arts Policy Committee of 33 arts leaders (approximately half are women), and with their help he has drafted a two-page platform in support of the arts. (See http://www.barackobama.com/pdf/issues/
additional/Obama_FactSheet_Arts.pdf) The Democratic platform includes a plank that echoes Obama’s views. (See the text below.)
In stark contrast, neither John McCain’s website nor the Republican platform lists the arts as an issue. Even in the section of their platform that deals with education, the Republicans stress a “back to basics” approach and do not mention the arts. (See http://platform.gop.com/2008Platform.pdf )
Obama Promises More Money, More Favorable Laws
Obama promises to increase the budget of the National Endowment for the Arts, which has dropped from its peak of
Obama states that he will advocate for legislative changes to streamline the visa process (which has been very restricted since 9/11) to make it easier for artists and students to visit the U.S., and he supports a change in the federal tax code that would give artists a break by letting them deduct the fair market value of their work (instead of just the costs of their materials) when they donate their works to charity.
An Artist Corps in the Schools
One of Obama’s most interesting ideas is his plan to form an “Artist Corps” of young artists trained to work in low-income schools and their communities. Programs like this that create jobs for artists have often been the most effective forms of arts subsidy in the U.S.
For instance, in 1935 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt launched the Works Progress Administration in response to the massive unemployment during the Great Depression. The WPA philosophy was to put people back to work in jobs that would serve the public and enhance the workers’ skills and self-esteem. Although the program only lasted until 1942, it employed up to 40,000 artists a year and provided training to many who became the most distinguished artists of their generation.
Like many other citizens, U.S. artists are struggling to make ends meet as a result of rapidly increasing prices for the basic living expenses of housing, food, transportation, and health care. Both candidates claim that their programs will help all Americans address these issues, however the Republican policies over the past 8 years have made these problems worse. Obama’s arts policy recognizes that finding affordable health care is a particular problem for many artists since they often work independently and are not eligible for employer-funded health programs.
McCain Has A Record of Voting Against the Arts
Although the Arts Action Fund has been working since the New Hampshire primaries in 2007 to obtain statements from each of the candidates about their arts policies, the McCain campaign has not addressed this issue. (For links to the arts policies of each candidate, see http://www.artsactionfund.org/artsvote/001.asp .)
Therefore, the only way to deduce McCain’s attitude towards the arts is to review his voting record in the Senate, which reveals that he has voted to reduce arts funding twice. (See http://artsusa.www.capwiz.com/artsusa/keyvotes.xc/?lvl=C)
In 1999 he was one of 16 senators who supported the Smith-Ashcroft amendment which would have eliminated funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. (The amendment failed.) Then in 2000 he was one of 27 senators who voted to reduce the National Endowment for the Arts budget by $7.3 million. (This amendment also failed.)
Given this voting record it seems unlikely that McCain will lead any efforts to increase arts funding. However, prior to the Reagan years, Republicans were more supportive of the arts. In fact, the largest growth in the National Endowment for the Arts budget was during the Nixon adminstration when the agency was under the leadership of Nancy Hanks. Some Republicans remain interested in the arts. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who tried unsuccessfully for this year’s presidential nomination, is a strong advocate of arts education, and Republican legislators now comprise 39% of the Senate Cultural Caucus and 20% of the House Arts Caucus.
Recommended Resources on Arts Policy Issues
* Americans for the Arts
The Arts Action Fund has created a brief on arts issues for legislators (See http://www.artsactionfund.org/pdf/artsvote/ArtsVoteIssueBrief.pdf) and they have launched the ArtsVote 2008 campaign, (http://www.artsactionfund.org/artsvote). They have issued report cards on Congressional arts voting records, and they are organizing voters to put pressure on candidates to support arts-friendly legislation.
* Webster’s World of Cultural Democracy
Don Adams and Arlene Goldbard, two arts consultants who have been studying cultural policy for three decades, have done some of the most perceptive writing on U.S. cultural policy that we have found. Their well-written essays are extremely helpful in understanding our current policies and imagining alternatives. Our personal favorites are their essays on the history of U.S. cultural policy (http://www.wwcd.org/policy/US/UShistory.html), New Deal cultural programs (http://www.wwcd.org/policy/US/newdeal.html), and Arlene Goldbard’s wonderful 14 point call to action (http://www.wwcd.org/issues/14pts.html).