Gotham Gazette

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Funding And The Arts

Kate Levin, the new cultural affairs commissioner, made her first public comments at the provocatively named "Who Pays for the Arts?" conference, held at Columbia University's School of Journalism and co-sponsored by Columbia's National Arts Journalism Program and the advocacy group Alliance for the Arts. Levin spoke of the awkwardness and inflexibility of the current budget structure, in which 85 percent of the city's arts financing is given to the Cultural Institutions Group (CIGs)--major theaters, museums, libraries, zoos, gardens, and historical societies. The CIGs, which occupy city-owned buildings and receive funding for basic maintenance and utilities--the mundane expenses that private funders are often reluctant to cover--include the Met, Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning, Snug Harbor Cultural Center, El Museo del Barrio, and the Museum of the City of New York. The rest of the city's hundreds of cultural organizations compete for the remaining 15 percent.

Levin's willingness to consider restructuring the budget--a taboo subject within the cultural establishment--came as welcome news to some. Virginia Louloudes, executive director of the Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York, spoke of the need to nurture the smaller, sometimes experimental arts institutions. "If I was a mother with a newborn baby and a 30-year-old still living at home," she said during a panel on city funding, "I'd tell the 30-year-old to go out and get a job so I'd have money to feed the baby." Indeed, as Catherine Lanier, director of research at the Alliance for the Arts, reported, the current funding structure overwhelmingly favors larger, wealthier organizations. Institutions with budgets over 10 million get the lion's share of all city funding; in 1999, that share was over 70 percent.


While the conference touched on the moral and philosophical issues surrounding arts funding, the overriding concerns were immediate and practical. All of New York's arts organizations rely on a combination of private and public funds and earned income. An Alliance for the Arts report revealed that, even during the flush years of the 1990s, smaller organizations suffered as a result of rising costs and reduced public and private funding. Some fear that a survival-of-the-fittest model is emerging, whereby only those organizations large enough to support endowments and cash reserves will be able to weather hard times.

The report also revealed that larger organizations have become increasingly dependent on earned income--welcome news to those who consider for-profit ventures to be signs of ingenuity and strength. Earned income in 1980 on average made up just 39 percent of arts organizations' revenue; in 1999, money from tickets, admissions, rentals, gift shops, and other activities generated 50.9 percent of all revenue. The downside of this growth, however, is that an institution like the Guggenheim is dramatically affected by the drop in tourism (and the accompanying drop in ticket and gift shop sales).


The bottom line is that the this country's leaders have never been as generous to artists as, say, Elizabeth I during the English Renaissance. On a panel about city funding, the historian Kenneth Jackson argued that, if money is the best measure of what our society values, baseball and cars come out way ahead of the arts. Robert Lynch, the head of the research organization Americans for the Arts, pointed out that subsidizing artists goes against the grain of America's spirit of entrepreneurialism and our Puritan roots.

But many in New York's arts community recall brighter days. Robert Marx, vice president of The Fan Fox & Leslie R. Samuels Foundation, harkened back to 1970, when the New York Shakespeare Festival got $700,000 from the city and the state; today they get a pittance--$60,000--to present free Shakespeare in the park.

Funds to cultural groups do not comprise a major part of the city's gargantuan budget--only a fraction of one percent. "Is it enough," Patricia Cruz, executive director of Aaron Davis Hall, asked, "for a city that prides itself on being a cultural capital?" It follows that Bloomberg's funding cuts to cultural groups do not make up a lot of money, except to the arts organizations themselves, of course.


A refrain heard throughout the conference was that the arts community needs to become a political force. Jonathan Katz, president of the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, advocated presenting arts funding as a vehicle for politicians to achieve their own goals. Since the arts already get played off against social services when budgets are created, it makes sense to argue that the arts themselves have social value--to educate youth or strengthen communities, for example. Kate Levin put it succinctly: "I think the dialogue has been hamstrung in the past by a tendency to be anecdotal, to talk about your conversion experience and how arts changed your life," she said. "But that doesn't really cut it when you have to numerically line up budget items."

Martha Hostetter writes for American Theatre magazine.

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