How Does the United States’ Public Art Support Stack Up?

In 1993, then-Grammy CEO and president of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, Michael Greene gave a scathing, no-holds-barred speech at the 35th Annual Grammy Awards. In it, Greene touched on what he called the “dirty business of gutting music, art, dance, and creative writing from the curriculum of America’s schools,” and identified the federal government as the primary culprit.

It’s important to remember the sociopolitical context for Greene’s speech. Not even 12 months earlier, rioters had looted and burned neighborhoods adjacent to the glamorous Shrine Auditorium, the Grammys’ longtime home. It was no longer possible to ignore the existence of two parallel Americas: one affluent, comfortable, culturally dominant and largely white; the other poor, struggling, culturally marginalized and increasingly diverse.

As Greene noted in his speech, young residents of the “second” America were “dangerously missing…a sense of hope and a source of pride.” They were being told that they couldn’t express themselves — that, to fit into contemporary society, they had to act in strict accordance with a dominant cultural narrative.

Greene identified music as a “primary means of communication” and a key source of the hope and pride that young, economically marginalized Americans lacked in the early 1990s. That was surely a powerful message to the hundreds of disadvantaged Angelenos in attendance at the ceremony at Greene’s own behest.

He went on to excoriate the Reagan and Bush administrations for their open hostility to public funding for cultural education and initiatives. (At the beginning of his first term, President Reagan actually proposed abolishing the National Endowment for the Arts before a committee convened for that purpose and recommended maintaining it in present form.) He fretted that the federal government’s tepid-at-best support for the arts would turn America into a “cultural wasteland,” deploying some terrifying statistics that appeared to support his point. At the time, Japan spent $5 per person on public support for the arts, Germany about $2.50, and the U.K. and Canada about $1.25 apiece. What did America spend? A measly 15 cents per person.

Greene closed on a hopeful note: “We’re confident that when the Clinton administration” — which had taken power earlier that year — “reveals its art policy, it will become the seminal call to redeploy resources and ensure that the arts are mandatory core curriculum for graduation.”

It’s unclear whether Greene delivered this statement with any irony. The Bill Clinton administration faced a host of controversies during its eight-year tenure, of course, a handful of which centered on public support for controversial artists and musicians. It faced repeated questions about whether the federal government should even be in the business of supporting the arts in the first place. Things didn’t get any easier for musicians, artists and pursuers of higher truths once Clinton left office. If anything, they got tougher.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the key controversies that have buffeted the National Endowment for the Arts and other public-facing arts initiatives since Michael Greene’s 1993 Grammys speech, and determine where public support for arts and music stands today.

Great Moments in National Endowment for the Arts History

 

  • National Endowment for the Arts v. Finley, 1993-98: This long-running court case centered on the criteria by which work supported by the NEA could be judged. The central question: Could controversial subject matter disqualify artists and their work? Cultural conservatives wanted certain provocative material banned from inclusion in NEA’s portfolio under this standard. Ultimately, the Supreme Court ruled that controversial subject matter wasn’t grounds for disqualification.
  • Newt Gingrich’s Anti-NEA Campaign, 1994-97: After Congressional Republicans swept to power in 1994, House Speaker Newt Gingrich led a fierce, acrimonious campaign to abolish the NEA. Though he enjoyed grassroots support, he was ultimately unsuccessful.
  • The NEA Conference Call Fiasco, 2009: On a conference call in early 2009, a NEA executive appeared to endorse active cooperation between NEA and the Obama administration — a huge no-no for the politically independent organization. Conservatives used the opportunity to call for the NEA’s abolition, but the drive fizzled.

A Snapshot of the National Endowment for the Arts Today

Where does the National Endowment for the Arts stand today? What about public support for the arts writ large?

According to a 2013 fact sheet released by the National Endowment for the Arts, the organization’s current federal allowance hovers just south of $150 million. For perspective, that’s just over one-hundredth of one percent of the total federal discretionary budget, which isn’t even close to the total amount the federal government spends each year.

Since the early years of the Obama administration, NEA funding has actually declined markedly. From 2010 to 2013, the total allowance declined by about 13 percent. This is a shame since every dollar in NEA grants complements up to $9 in additional funding from public and private sources. In other words, the federal government’s NEA contribution amounts to only a small slice of the total NEA funding pie. However, it’s an important slice that effectively greases the skids for the bulk of the largess that pours into NEA’s coffers each year.

Perhaps most importantly, NEA funding has an undeniable stimulus effect. According to the factsheet, the nonprofit arts sector is responsible for more than $135 billion in economic activity and supports more than 4 million jobs. Taking away the catalyst for such activity implicitly threatens some of those jobs — not exactly what we want during a period of ongoing economic uncertainty.

Meet the New Boss…

So what has changed in the 20-plus years since Michael Greene’s 1993 Grammys speech? Unfortunately, not much. By some measures, public support for the arts has actually eroded. It’s now up to Americans who feel strongly about the role of art and music in public life to stand up and say, loudly, “No more!”