18 February 2009

NEA vs JP Getty: Ten rounds, no holds barred.

Fifty million reasons that a 'victory' is a defeat - Modern Art Notes

How small is the NEA's $145 million annual appropriation? The National Gallery of Art and the Kennedy Center receive more federal dollars through the normal federal budgeting process than the NEA does. The NEA is supposed the be the primary arts protagonist for the American people, yet a single arts philanthropy, the J. Paul Getty Trust, spent 50 percent more than the NEA did in the Getty's most recently reported year. (Imagine if one charitable foundation spent more than the federal government does on environmental research. It would rightly be a national embarrassment.)
Really? Why should I be embarrassed that a group of citizens voluntarily chose to donate more to the arts than citizens as a whole were forced to through taxes and the vagaries of federal budgeting?

Private citizens spend more than the federal government on food, and clothing, and shelter, and landscaping, and caring for pets, and wine, and film, and hair care and pretty much everything else we are interested in. The things it's best for the government to outspend the private sector on are extremely limited. Specifically they're limited to those areas which are subject to free-ridership or collective action problems. Since I think art has a public good component to it I don't entirely begrudge government spending on it, but there's absolutely no reason to set up a horse race between public and private spending on the arts. (Ditto scientific research of any kind.)

Sidenote:* This is just one example of how much of this "crisis" spending is bound to become a permanent part of the budget. Notice how Tyler Green's post doesn't address at all IMO doesn't focus on how the $50 million boost in the NEA budget that came in the attempted stimulus act is related to actually stimulating the economy. (Beyond "there exist arts institutions who would like to not be tightening their belts right now." This is true of any employer who is cutting back, so I don't see this as a reason to earmark millions for arts institutions specifically.)

This is money that's just being treated as a regular boost to the agency's bottom line and is not related to the recession at all. Given that outlook, how do you think people are going to react when the crises is over and the stimulus checks stop coming? Are they going to say "thanks for the one-time boost" or bitch about how their budgets are being cut? I'll lay dollars to donuts we hear nothing but bitching when this extra spending is supposed to expire.

I should make clear that I have no idea if the above actually will be Green's reaction, but I have a suspicion it will be the reaction of a majority of the arts community — and that of every other constituency to receive a bump in budgets during the recession. If a group is of the opinion that their cause deserves more money regardless of the business cycle and they get more money at the bottom they're not going to easily give that money up when we get back to the top.

* This section has been edited in response to a comment below from Mr Green. As I said in the comments, I do not seem to see eye-to-eye with Green on federal arts appropriations, but he does run an excellent art blog. Modern Art Notes is good reading.


  1. Regarding: "Notice how Tyler Green's post doesn't address at all to how the $50 million boost in the NEA budget that came in the attempted stimulus act is related to actually stimulating the economy."

    This was made clear in the very first sentence of my post: "Last week Congress included $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts as part of the federal stimulus package."

    And throughout the post I discussed the $50M line-item within the context of jobs-related funding, such as my San Diego example.


  2. Fair enough, fair enough. I've edited that passage in a way that I hope makes it a little more reasonable.

    I do want to say that while we don't agree on the stimulus and arts funding I do love your blog. Keep it up.