A recent New Yorker cartoon portrays a distraught caveman shouting out from a crowd at his tribal leader: Why is the arts budget always the first thing to be cut, he demands, when you know damn well it's the only thing that separates us from the monkeys?
The debate over the value of the arts is ancient, and gets rehearsed at least once a decade.
State budget proposals and counterproposals for fiscal year 2003 have sent the arts community around the nation and in New York into high alert. Facing yawning deficits, governors in New Jersey, Florida, California, Colorado, Oregon, and elsewhere have threatened to halve or, in some cases eliminate, arts funding.
Proposed cuts in New York, while less draconian, are still significant, particularly while foundation and corporate funding continues to decline. After nearly a decade of expansions, we will see museums and theaters with reduced hours and scaled-back ambitions, stalled building projects and some closed doors.
What's different about this latest "Why should taxpayers support the arts?" debate is that, over the past 10 years, arts advocacy has caught up with social sectors like education and housing. The Culture Counts report, published in 2001, found that the arts bring around $12 billion each year into the city's economy through job creation and taxes - a 240 percent return on the city's investment. Early results from a three-year study of the value of arts across the nation, sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts, have just been released. During the recent round of budget hearings and negotiations, such tools provide hard evidence of the cultural sector's value to tourism, education, and local economies.
Department of Cultural Affairs
The preliminary city budget proposes cuts of an additional 11.5 percent, on top of this year's six percent cuts, from the Department of Cultural Affairs, returning funding levels to 1999. The 34 city-owned cultural organizations known as the Cultural Institutions Group (CIGs) would get $86.7 million. Maintaining that larger groups have the wherewithal to reach out to other funding sources, Commissioner Kate Levin designed the budget so that the smaller CIGS would take less of a hit. Thus, the 14 CIGs with budgets of $6 million or more (e.g., The Met) would have their funding cut by 35 percent, and the 20 groups with budgets less than $6 million (e.g., Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning) would be cut by 24 percent.
The Program Groups would have their funding reduced from $18.7 million to $12.3 million -- a small pie to be shared by some 500 nonprofits, who typically receive grants in amounts ranging from $5,000 to $2 million. The Cultural Challenge Program, which rewards competitive grants, would be eliminated altogether.
Cultural Affairs Advisory Commission
An anonymous $10 million donation to arts agencies, widely believed to come from Mayor Michael Bloomberg, reminded city arts leaders that this mayor seems to appreciate the economic importance of the arts. So did his creation, in late February, of the Cultural Affairs Advisory Commission. Invoking the same charter provision that allowed Mayor Rudy Giuliani to create a "Decency" Commission, Mayor Bloomberg's group has been described as an advocacy body, designed to assist nonprofits arts community with management and board development, arts education, marketing and outreach, and capital assistance (e.g., technical advice on constructive projects; there are currently 120 groups engaged in building projects). The 21 advisors, including former Museum of Modern Art director Agnes Gund, the painter Chuck Close, philanthropist and art-lover Robert Soros, and other such powerhouses, may be able to create the cohesive strategy for cultural development that New York so clearly needs.
State Council on the Arts
In the past year's budget, New York spent more than any other state on the arts, $44.4 million. Now, with the state arguably facing the biggest budget crisis since the Depression, Governor George Pataki proposes to trim grants to arts organizations by 15 percent, to about $37.8 million. But critics want deeper cuts.
E.J. McMahon, of the Manhattan Institute, told the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle that cultural funding "is not a core government service," and that, "there's a lot of feel-good stuff that there's no way you can argue is essential in the midst of the worst fiscal crisis in a generation."
Thankfully, Albany has had a long commitment to the arts, and is not likely to impose the short-sighted, slash-and-burn cuts to cultural funding demanded in some quarters. Moreover, with respect to the overall budget, arts allocations are so miniscule that even cutting them dramatically provides few gains. In last year's total state budget of $89.6 billion, $44 million for the arts amounted to one-half of a tenth of one percent. Yet, these small allowances can mean a great deal to individual nonprofits: city and state public art agencies often pay for operational needs of arts organizations -- such as energy, audience development, or technology -- that other funders are less likely to sponsor.
Because of ancient prejudices and competing priorities, arts funding will always be questioned, no matter how much evidence is found demonstrating its value. Discussing the cuts across the nation and in New York, Commissioner Levin told The Art Newspaper that "There's a lot of concern that somehow it's okay to eliminate arts funding altogether. That's true not just for government, but some major foundations, as well. The work this sector does isn't as evident as it should be to people making funding decisions."
Martha Hostetter writes for American Theatre magazine.