Monday, March 14, 2005

Get Virginia Government Out of the Arts Business

My post on the LPVA and the Virginia Fine Arts Museum brought to mind a piece I published in early 2003 in The Metro Herald and other newspapers. (Someone told me it appeared in the Northern Virginia Journal -- now the Washington Examiner -- but I was unable to access the newspaper's web site without a subscription, so I never saw it there.)

In this article, I argue that the arts are better off without government funding.

Read and enjoy. This article ran in The Metro Herald (Alexandria, Virginia), on Friday, January 10, 2003:

Get Virginia Government Out of the Arts Business
Richard E. Sincere

(Charlottesville) — Virginia arts organizations have raised the alarm about Governor Mark Warner's proposed budget cuts.

The January 5 Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that most such organizations face "at least 15 percent cuts to their operating budgets, while the Virginia Commission for the Arts, which funds nonprofit arts groups, could lose as much as 45 percent. Some institutions were proposed for mergers, such as the Virginia Museum of Natural History and the Science Museum of Virginia." Roger Neathawk, executive director of the lobbying group Virginians for the Arts, predicted that the Virginia Commission for the Arts "could have its budget slashed from $4.9 million to $2.7 million if the General Assembly approves Warner's budget proposals."

The General Assembly should stand firm and support the Governor's proposed cuts. The situation provides an excellent, bipartisan opportunity for the majority-Republican state Senate and House of Delegates and the Democratic Governor to demonstrate that arts funding is not a necessary or proper function of government. State funding of the arts simply politicizes art, theatre, and music, which should succeed or fail on their own merits.

Virginia boasts a number of noteworthy arts organizations. In theatre alone, we have the internationally renowned Signature Theatre in Arlington County, the Shenandoah Shakespeare Company in Staunton, Charlottesville's cutting-edge Live Arts, and Abingdon's famous Barter Theatre, just to mention a few examples.

There is no question that the arts deserve to thrive. Whether painting and sculpture, music and drama, or literature and folk art, humanistic pursuits contribute to our larger culture and make our lives richer and more challenging. But acknowledging this is not the same as admitting that the arts deserve to be underwritten by taxpayers rather than by private, voluntary donors.

In his 1998 book, In Praise of Commercial Culture, economist Tyler Cowen of George Mason University in Fairfax notes that "art and democratic politics, although both beneficial activities, operate on conflicting principles. In the field of art new masterpieces usually bring aesthetic revolutions, which tend to offend majority opinion or go over its head. In the field of politics we seek stability, compromise, and consensus. This same conservatism, so valuable in politics, stifles beauty and innovation in art."

Cowen goes on to say that "government involvement in cultural preservation involves costs beyond the immediate tax burden – state support makes the arts more bureaucratic and less dynamic."

The marketplace is inherently flexible; government is inherently sclerotic. Just as markets for food, furniture, and fashion adjust readily to the needs and wants of consumers, so too do markets for the arts. Arts organizations that rely on government funding find themselves either stultified by the slow pace of political decisionmaking, or they end up paying obeisance to their political masters -- or both. "He that pays the piper, calls the tune," applies precisely here. Government funding always comes with strings attached.

Although it is more difficult to finance an arts organization through private contributions alone, it is worth the extra effort – and it can be done. In Charlottesville, for instance, Live Arts and two other organizations – Second Street Gallery, a graphic arts group, and Light House, which teaches film and video techniques to young people – are constructing a new building without any government assistance.

This fundraising effort is led by civic activist and artist Thane Kerner, who has designed album covers for the Dave Matthews Band. Under his leadership, the groups' umbrella organization, Charlottesville Contemporary Arts, has eschewed government funding in favor of the independence that private funding provides. The community benefits both artistically and financially. At a Charlottesville City Council meeting last February, Kerner testified that a cultural facility of this type can bring $650,000 in revenues a year to the city based on the current size of the participating organizations.

Private financing reduces the complacency that comes with government dependence. It forces arts organizations to be disciplined, cost-conscious, resourceful, innovative, and adaptable.

The prospect of cuts in state funding under Governor Warner is already having this desirable effect on several Virginia institutions.

Dr. Walter R.T. Witschey, director of the Science Museum of Virginia, told the Associated Press: "We have cranked up our creative energies to take advantage of every possibility to generate revenue from [non-state] sources." Executive Director G. John Avoli of the Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton added that the budget proposals have "made us leaner and meaner. We have a team writing grants now. We're putting people together and coming up with creative ideas and moving forward."

Republicans and Democrats in state government have an unprecedented opportunity this year to free the arts from government funding and associated control. With freedom comes energy, creativity, new chances to take risks, and previously unpredictable avenues for success.

Governor Warner's proposed budget cuts deserve our support. They are fiscally, politically, and morally responsible.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Richard Sincere. a former member of the Arlington County Arts Commission, is a Charlottesville-based theatre critic as well as entertainment editor for The Metro Herald in Alexandria.


Fred H said...

Though I agree with your overall theme, your last two examples aren't too impressive. Generating "revenue from [non-state] sources" usually just means local and federal funding instead of state. The same for redirecting employees from proper work and tasking them to grantwriting.

Avoli's "leaner and meaner" might be more accurate than mere rhetoric. His organization created a stir by tearing down another county's historic landmark to get parts for a new museum display.

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