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Wailing has begun over the possible defunding and demise of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). How could those cretins propose to eliminate an institution so very critical to promoting artistic expression? If that’s your reaction, you haven’t thought much about the main beneficiaries of federal sinkholes like the NEA. Granted, at $146 million annually, it is not a major federal budget item, but I’d rather not stoop to defend a lousy program because it’s small. So what’s my beef with the NEA, you ask? Read on.

First, any implication that the NEA is the lifeblood of the arts is laughable. No, the arts won’t die if federal funding is denied. Jeff Jacoby quotes figures suggesting that grants from the NEA represented less than 1% of all support for the arts and culture in the U.S. in 2015. Great art was created prior to the establishment of the NEA in 1965. Without the NEA, such bungles as “Piss Christ” would have met with less acclaim. As such a minor funding vehicle, eliminating the NEA won’t make much difference to artists, but it will end a subsidy for wealthy patrons, who can and do provide support for worthy projects, but also derive essentially private benefits from the federal arts spigot.

A large share of NEA grant money goes to non-profit organizations that are already subsidized to the extent that they are not taxed. (Let’s face it: the term “non-profit” itself is often a term of art.) Large arts organizations, which receive a significant share of NEA grants, often have highly-paid administrators and sumptuous facilities. Contributions to those organizations are tax-deductible for the donors. And few of those organizations provide art to the public for free or at a discount. Indeed, as noted at the last link, they often charge significant prices for attendance, and their audiences include a disproportionate percentage of high-income patrons.

Lawrence Reed argues persuasively that government need not subsidize the arts in an article in his series on the Cliches of Progressivism. Here are the highlights:

  • “Government funding of the arts… carries with it all the downsides of dependence on politics.
  • Claims that arts spending is magically “multiplied” are specious and usually self-serving, and never look at alternative uses of the same money.
  • Culture arises naturally and spontaneously among people who chose to interact with each other. Art is part of that, but it also competes with all sorts of other things people choose to do with their time and money.
  • If art is truly important, then the last thing we should want to do is politicize it or divert it toward those things that people with power think we should see or hear.”

Reed’s comment regarding “multipliers” might need some explanation in this context. The NEA’s defenders often claim that each dollar of NEA grant money results in multiple additional grants from other sources, but there is absolutely no evidence to support this claim except for a requirement that NEA grants be matched at the state level (not to mention a requirement for a state-level arts agency). Obviously, that represents another cost to taxpayers. It is quite possible, in fact, that the NEA and matching state grants act as substitutes for, and depress, private arts giving. See this piece in Forbes for more background. This NBER research utilized a large panel data set on individual charities and found only mixed support for the proposition that government grants encourage private contributions. In fact, the estimated effect was ambiguous for individual categories of charitable giving (which did not explicitly address the arts as a category). In any case, a positive cross-sectional effect of government grants on private giving for individual charities is consistent with a negative effect on other charities that do not receive public grants.

In a 20-year-old report from the Heritage Foundation, Stuart Butler offered a list of reasons to defund the NEA, which have held up well. Here, I provide eight that seem relevant:

  1. The arts will have more than enough support without the NEA: See above.
  2. Welfare for cultural elitists: See above. NEA grants fund a number of big and very elite organizations, but they would have you believe that it’s a veritable welfare program for the arts. That is a huge distortion. There is no question that the distribution of patrons of these organizations skews to the wealthy.
  3. Discourages charitable gifts to the arts: See above. Is the award of an NEA grant the equivalent of establishing a credit record to an arts organization? This might hold up for a few small organizations with projects the NEA has funded, but again, the support for this proposition is anecdotal and self-serving, and the numbers are small. And is there an implied stain on the legitimacy of any organization unable to win such a grant?
  4. Lowers the quality of American art: Committee decisions and central planning are not conducive to the spirit of creativity. Public institutions are often guided by political agendas, and government-sanctioned art stands in sharp contradiction to the ideal of free expression. Butler quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Beauty will not come at the call of the legislature…. It will come, as always, unannounced, and spring up between the feet of brave and earnest men.”
  5. Funds pornography: this is not my hot button… it’s an issue only to the extent that public funds should not be used for purposes that many taxpayers find morally repugnant.
  6. Promotes politically correct art: See #4 above. The merits are then judged on the basis of criteria like race, ethnicity, and gender identity, not the quality of the art itself.
  7. Wastes resources: Butler offers a few examples of the waste at the NEA, a shortcoming common to all bureaucracies. The NEA funds organizations that behave as non-profit cronyists, engaging in lobbying efforts for more support. Butler also cites evidence that recipients of government grants in the UK hire more administrative staff than non-recipients, and tend not to reduce ticket prices.
  8. Funding the NEA disturbs the U.S. tradition of limited government: I suppose this goes without saying….

The federal government in the U.S. was granted a set of enumerated powers in the Constitution, and promoting the arts was not one of them. It wasn’t as if the subject didn’t come up at the Constitutional Convention. It did, and it was voted down. Today, entrenched interests at organizations like the NEA and National Public Radio distort the character of the constituencies they serve. In reality, those constituencies  are heavily concentrated among the cultural and economic elite. The NEA and NPR also promote the fiction that they are all that stand between access to the arts and culture and a bleak, artless dystopia. Give them credit for creating a fantasy about which the political left readily suspends disbelief.