Posted by: cantmisssd | December 2, 2010

Arts funding as proxy

Between Carl DeMaio and Kelly Bennett, it looks like we’ve established that people love to kvetch about public funding for the arts. And, apparently, I’m no different.

DeMaio’s plan is to fire four people to save $330,000, and cut about $1.5 million in grants to non-profits. And as usual, the deficit zombies have descended en masse to make things up about the nature of city services and budgeting. The same, tired arguments are all there- art is an optional toy for rich people, police coverage is more important, government is too big anyways, someone has to suffer in tough times. We get these arguments every time out of the gate, and all of them are silly and beside the point.

First, to quickly run down the defense of the arts. These aren’t just throwaway vanity projects. These are people with long-standing jobs and careers who are losing their jobs. And these aren’t just rich people going to elaborate stage shows. They are implicit or explicit after-school programs that keep kids engaged in creative and intellectual projects. They’re job-training programs that teach critical thinking and creativity in addition to trades from carpentry to fashion production to management. They make public spaces more inviting, attracting traffic that becomes customers. And to crib from John Keating, we all need to engage in the work to keep society functioning. But poetry, beauty, romance, love; these are what we stay alive for. But in this case, all of this is beside the point.

These cuts will make no significant impact on the budget shortfall before the city. Not only that, it will do nothing to address the systemic budget failures that created this shortfall and will continue to create shortfalls. Instead, it’s a political tool being wielded by DeMaio for a broader purpose. Debate over whether and how to cut the city arts budget is really a debate over how to address the notion of government. Instead of talking about all ways to close the budget gap, this shifts the debate to simply what the government should not be and what options there are for killing it. It’s often a subtle distinction, but one that makes a huge difference. The debate implicitly accepts the notion that the fundamental budget problem is an overextension of government. Which is hardly a settled case.

I’ve recently been told that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to advocate a progressive vision of government in a bad economy. The supposition is that progressivism requires disposable income and focuses on the development of comparative luxuries. This, frankly, is ridiculous. Progressive government is about operating within the full scope of real and measurable impact, and about not dressing up post-modern corporate colonialism in the false principles of fiscal discipline. So the question for arts funding is not “do we need it more or less than police?” The question to be asked is whether that money can have a larger, more effective impact either in another part of the public budget or by being invested in the private sector.

But despite the insistence of free market automotons, there is no invisible hand to ensure that private investment and management delivers anything close to the greatest good for the greatest number (I know! Commie!), or the most cost effective solutions, or programs that benefit the broader economy. It doesn’t work in the macro sense with the arts just like it didn’t work with Blackwater, it didn’t work with Enron, it didn’t work for anyone whose retirement plan was being managed on Wall Street in 2007, and it didn’t work when BP and Halliburton went drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Because privatization cripples oversight capability, and effectively destroys any hope for transparency. So when (not if) money gets wasted, it goes into the pockets of corrupt CEOs.

When the basis for reform debate is about how to cut and reduce instead of how to maximize returns and provide every effective service, we’re only talking about how soon we can drown government in the bathtub. We aren’t talking about positive results. We aren’t talking about making lives better. We aren’t even talking about how to strengthen the private sector. The anti-government wormhole can’t possibly help anything.



  1. First off, every time I read a post, I want to yell “Hear, hear!” and drink to it.

    In this particular post, the assumption is made that government and private sectors are the only places that can fill the gap for public arts. Nonprofits are a great alternative for filling the need. Most nonprofits get very little money from the government and most have learned to not rely on it (if they do, they’ve got other problems). There are many nonprofits in which public art could fit under their scope and mission. But there still needs to be a partnership with government to move forward process. So there is that.

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