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Tuesday Morning Roundup


by Stephen Becker 10 Feb 2009

Now that it appears that money for the arts has been competely dumped from the economic stimulus package, some of our national culture writers are hoppin’ mad. Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune wonders how the arts descended to this lowly spot on the government priority list. “The contrast in priority with the last comparable […]

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Now that it appears that money for the arts has been competely dumped from the economic stimulus package, some of our national culture writers are hoppin’ mad. Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune wonders how the arts descended to this lowly spot on the government priority list.

“The contrast in priority with the last comparable American stimulus package is simply breathtaking. Funded by the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration made the arts a priority. Federal Project Number One — home of the Federal Writers Project, the Federal Theater Project, the Federal Music Project and the Federal Art Project — was, believe it or not, the largest of the WPA’s endeavors.

Its mission was to give more Americans the chance to experience what Roosevelt called “a fuller life.” Its legacy — from invigorating murals to landscape paintings to the careers of Arthur Miller or Orson Welles — is everywhere you look.”

Meanwhile, Christopher Knight, writing for the L.A. Times Culture Monster blog, takes direct aim at a piece of the bailout package he deems as way unnecessary. Rather than spend $62 billion to continue funding of the F-22 fighter plane – a project that even Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has been critical of – Knight suggests that money would be better spend on the arts. He’s quick to point out that that will never happen, but his argument is an interesting one. To make it, he uses the example of an upgrade that L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art is in need of:

“MOCA estimates the upgrade cost at about $20 million. The rehab would create and retain construction jobs, directly as well as indirectly from suppliers; ensure future levels of museum employment; and add permanent infrastructure value to the cultural landscape.

Now, multiply that by 100,000. I suspect every one of America’s nonprofits has at least one unfunded project that it would like to get going – “shovel-ready,” as it were, even if the job doesn’t involve bricks and mortar. A program tour, say, or a schools program.”

So why do projects like the F-22 get funding while arts groups don’t? Back in Chicago, Jones writes:

Somehow it has come to be broadly accepted that concrete, asphalt and medicine for the body (as distinct from the heart and soul) have greater moral worth. … More significantly, the arts have thrown up precious few, articulate, clout-heavy American leaders of their own. That needs to change. Old economic arguments must be articulated anew.

The sad truth to all of this is that one need only follow the money to figure out why we’ll continue building outdated fighter planes instead of new arts infrastructure. Knight says that a group of 46 senators signed a letter urging that the F-22 program continue. When it does, the companies that build them will get rich, and some of that money can in turn be spend to fund campaigns and pay lobbyists.

It’s a nasty cycle. And the fact that there were not enough voices in the Senate willing to speak out against dumping the arts funding from the stimulus packages shows that it’s a cycle with no end in sight.

  • UPDATE from Culture Monster: Tom Coburn, the senator from Oklahoma who stripped arts funding from the stimulus package? His daughter is an opera singer and he’s an opera lover.
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  • Jim VanKirk

    I’m sorry but you both have it terribly wrong. Arts organizations have almost no true relationship with contemporary artists. In fact it’s more realistic to see the existing arts managers as responsible for the poor relationship between Americans and their arts. After all it’s clear that the managers knew very well what they were doing when they supported Serra’s recalcitrance in the early 80’s then Andres Serrano, Mapplethorpe and Chris Ofili in rapid succession. So much for cheap shots for publicity on the part of these institutions.

    We voted for change alright… and we need change in the Arts as well.

    We certainly don’t need to throw money at those existing failed organizations such as LACMA. A move which serves no real purpose other than artificially propping up a fading contemporary art scene while sophistically claiming to be aiding the economy.

  • Bill Marvel

    I think we have to carefully distinguish between support for the arts and support for artists. The two are not necessarily — or even usually — the same thing. To prop up an institution such as LACMA or, say, the Dallas Symphony, may incidentally help an artist here or there. But basically such support should be regarded as something like supporting a library or scholarly institution. It preserves the cultural heritage and promotes education. (I’ve always believed the National Endowment shuld be part of the Department of Education.)
    The kind of support artists need is patronage, the commissioning of new works, sometimes just money to save them from starvation. Arts institutions are not geared to do this; it’s not their purpose. This explains a lot of the bitterness artists feel towards museums, symphony orchestras, and so forth.
    The various alphabet agencies under Roosevelt did a very good job supporting artists and while the art produced during the Depression may not have been the best, those same artists went on to do astonishing works in the late ’40s and through the ’60s.
    None of this, Jim, is an argument for or against “contemporary” art. Such arguments, in fact, bog down the issue in trivia. Do we want public support for a Mapplethorpe or a Serano? Let’s decide if we want to publicly support artists, first.