Sunday, April 17, 2011

When Government Funding for the Arts Stops

Good morning
"And the beat goes on............................"

What If:
Once again, efforts to cut funding to the NEA, and attempts to eliminate a number of state arts agencies across the country have been beaten back by the concerted effort of many in the arts community - (or sort of, anyway - at least we reduced the size of the cuts).  Still, this is good news.  It demonstrates that we do have some power when we choose to use it, that we do have a good product and arguments as to why we are a good investment, and that we do have some support with decision makers.

Of course, one could also argue that these partial "victories" are really just smaller defeats than initially threatened.  What the recent efforts for the NEA, and those in Kansas and South Carolina, and doubtless other venues did was simply to lessen the amount of the cuts being imposed and / or defeat the effort to eliminate an agency entirely.   It's like someone threatened to tear off both your arms, and you convinced them to just tear off one of them.  A victory? -- yes, actually that is a victory - but you won't likely continue to survive with that kind of victory as the norm. 

This is a cycle - it happens whenever the economy burps.  We're preoccupied with our work, when all of a sudden they threaten huge cuts to our funding, and we go ballistic and rally the troops, and usually end up not preventing the cuts from happening, but reducing the size of the original proposed cuts.  And then we go back to what we were doing.  Death by a thousand cuts (no pun intended).  While we breathe a little easier and congratulate ourselves, we need to stop and think about the future of all of this. 

What if someday all government funding is cut off?  Or at least all federal and say 60% of all state funding is cut off? 

The question arises:  If we had built a more solid political base - including substantial (and well financed) lobbying efforts and campaign relationships with elected officials across the board, would that have made any difference.  In normal times, I would argue it would have.  But these are hardly "normal" times (if any such times actually exist at all), and so I think it entirely possible that even if we had substantial political clout, it may not have made a huge difference.  The deteriorating plight of the American economy has changed everything. 

While the current economic downturn has generated not unpredictable responses in the public - including wide spread support for more belt tightening - there are signs that this time things are a little different.  What happened in the last two years is arguably not a normal cycle for the economy.  This recession was at the precipice of a global meltdown depression; the housing / banking crisis that precipitated the mess is hardly fixed; the shift from American dominance of the world economy is unquestionably now irreversible; and we continue to spend and borrow far, far beyond our means - and right now in order to get the economy back on track (though not necessarily back to our dominance) we have to spend and borrow.  We may have reduced the cuts this time, but thinking we can always succeed would be a fool's conclusion.  

The economic expert community is somewhat at odds over whether or not the national deficit is the principal problem we face [with most arguing that jobs and stimulus of the economy are the most important priorities (both in fact and with the public) and that the dealing with the debt is more of a longer term issue].  But as the case with many other issues, the public "perception" is what counts, and there is movement towards the belief that the debt has to be tamed beginning right now, and, of course, the preferred way to deal with that is to cut spending rather than raise taxes.  Almost every rational thinker has concluded that to deal with the debt, we will have to do both - cut spending and increase income (raise taxes).  Of course, cutting spending turns out to be much harder than it sounds, and raising taxes sits well with almost no one.  And there's the stalemate.

I suppose what protects us (and everyone else who gets funding) is the failure of the system - the gridlock, stalemate and dogmatic partisanship of politics today, that makes any kind of action, other than symbolic little gestures, impossible, and so funding cuts remain painful, but not deadly.  But what if we actually get to the point where a majority feels that we have no choice (because, at some point, we in fact don't have a choice).  What if we finally come to the point where real action is unavoidable, and, though I admit this seems far fetched today, our elected leaders actually act responsibly.  The longer they wait, the harder the decisions will be (and I suppose in politics that's precisely why the can gets kicked down the road all the time). 

The problem with making cuts is that certain entitlements are sacred cows - Medicare and Social Security chief among them, and so cuts to those programs can only be made, at best, over a period of time (at least a decade, maybe longer).  And several other programs rank high on everyone's list - education, Medicaid, and even defense spending (another part of our mindset problems).  That doesn't leave a lot of other places to cut.  So if we get to the point where there is consensus that we really have no choice anymore, it is entirely possible - at that point - that we will be talking about extreme cuts and / or (at least temporary - but who knows how long temporary will be) elimination of funding for the arts all together - even if we raise taxes too.  That may be true on the federal level, all the way down to local cities and counties.  Not across the board of course, but maybe something close to a majority of all such government agency spending.  And is that possible, and how far away is such a situation?  Who knows?  I can't envision a credible argument that such a scenario cannot happen.

So what would the arts look like if there were no government spending?  No NEA, no state support in a score of states or more, no city or county support in hundreds of jurisdictions across the country.  A likely event?  I doubt it.  Not for awhile for sure.   But is it possible? Absolutely (there is a growing segment on the right who would like to see those cuts and eliminations on philosophical grounds, irrespective of economic necessity).  I have long thought, and argued, that government support - at some level - is critically essential to the survival of the nonprofit arts infrastructure in America.  And with other of the five income streams (earned income, individual donations, corporate and foundation philanthropy) all somewhat compromised, elimination of even some of the vast network of government support would have, I think, devastating consequences.  A case in point is the NEA 40% share that goes to the states, and which, in a number of more rural states, constitutes the lion's share of their entire budget.  The ends of the arts?  Of course not.  But the end of nonprofit arts - as we know it - well, that's more difficult to answer.

I think the field needs to consider the possibility that in the not too far distant future, circumstances may dictate that government support for the arts will no longer be available.  Period. And once gone, it will be axiomatically harder to re-establish. 

What do we do?  I'm not sure.  Think about advocacy on different levels, question the revenue model that is dependent in part on government funding, consider how we better position the arts with the public.  Think about alternatives and how that would or wouldn't work. All of it?  Considering the possibility and implications is a start.

So amid the sigh of relief that we won some "victories" of late, we need to recognize that this problem not only isn't going away, there is the very real chance that it will get a whole lot worse for us, and soon, and so we need to ask ourselves what do (can) we do now to stave off the worst case scenario.  We could wait and do what we've been doing - but that hasn't been working so well, and kind of fits the definition of insanity (doing the same failed thing over and over again, expecting different results).  I would hope as we discuss and debate policy issues, and talk about capacity and sustainability, and questions of supply and demand, and ideas to support the arts as essential to creativity, and creativity as linked to innovation and to community  - and all the other big ticket issues, that we would bear in mind that elimination of government funding for a large percentage of the entire arts infrastructure in the not too distant future isn't that far fetched a possibility - especially if we continue to struggle with the health of the American economy (and that seems almost a given). Maybe not likely, but certainly not impossible.   All I am suggesting is that it is better to think about it now, than after it's a fait accompli.

Have a good week.

Don't Quit