Why Should Artists Want Government Support?

The Star Tribune headlines: “Trump anxiety hits Minnesota arts groups, leaders.” This is another round in the perennial controversy over funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Never mind that President Trump doesn’t decide whether these programs are funded, or for how much. Congress does.

The Star Tribune leads with the Minneapolis Institute of Art, my personal favorite among Minnesota’s arts institutions:

“It’s absolutely terrifying all of us,” said Kaywin Feldman, director of the Minneapolis Institute of Art. She views the NEA and the National Endowment for the Humanities as critical to museums’ research and exhibitions, such as the recent “Martin Luther” blockbuster show that drew more than 100,000 people. Over the past decade, the museum received $1.2 million from the NEH and $258,000 from the NEA, among other federal funds.

That means that MIA gets an average of $146,000 per year from NEA and NEH, out of a budget of around $30 million. That’s less than one-half of one percent. Is the museum seriously trying to tell us that it couldn’t put on big exhibits like the Luther show if it lost one-half of one percent of its budget?

That isn’t all. MIA is just about the only major museum in the country that doesn’t charge for admission. Last year, 760,000 people visited the museum. MIA could make up for the hypothetical loss of federal funding by charging a mere 19 cents for admission.

Whenever this topic comes up, artists tell us how important the arts are:

Artist Camille Erickson greeted people as they entered, pausing from screen printing to help them look up their representatives. During last year’s legislative session, Erickson sent postcards “on a much smaller scale” and, with the help of Minnesota Citizens for the Arts and others, this year expanded the project. Using colored pencils, markers and watercolors, people gave their answers.

“Art creates a union between the emotional and intellectual landscapes, the lack of which leaves only a shallow vacuous existence,” printed Stephen Cruze, a Minneapolis writer who works at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

Wow! If without the arts people will suffer through “a shallow vacuous existence,” surely we will be happy to pay for them! And we do. People read books, attend movies and plays, go to museums and concerts, and enjoy the arts in various other ways that don’t involve government subsidies.

What I don’t understand is why more people in the various arts communities don’t regard government support as corrupting. It is no secret that in our society, “artists,” both real and would-be, tend to lean toward the left. (“I feel I was kind of a lazy liberal during the Obama administration,” says the writer quoted above. “It’s one of my resolutions this year — to be more involved in community action.”) But it hasn’t always been thus: historically, avant garde artists have often been anti-government.

Is it coincidence that most artists advocate for big government–higher taxes and more spending–when they themselves are hoping to be beneficiaries of government grants? I don’t think so.

Most nonprofits get along without government funding. Center of the American Experiment is one example among thousands. Arts organizations would do well, I think, to resolve to survive and prosper on their own merits, without government subsidies. Disentangling the arts from politics would be good for government, and good for the arts.