Susan Schmelzer on Arts Policy: The Devil’s Playground

“The Arts and Sciences, essential to the prosperity 
of the State and to the ornament of human life, have a primary claim to the encouragement of every lover of his country and mankind.
—George Washington

Like a good father, Washington spent much of his final term as President writing – advising us on the democratic experiment, our obligations to the founding principles and potential pitfalls of democracy. One of his oft-reiterated warnings was of extreme partisanship and the scourge it could be to governance.

A laggardly and uneven history of national arts policy gives pause to wonder what George would say today. Have we as a nation adequately 
committed ourselves to the care of our arts?

It wasn’t until the 1930s that the U.S. effected an arts policy of sorts vis-à-vis The New Deal’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) which put to work over 10,000 “starving artists.” It lasted eight years, at which time the muse fell off the policy easel—for another 20.

Finally, on the coattails of Kennedy’s Camelot, it was Lyndon Johnson, who, in 1965, signed into law “The Arts and Humanities Act,” establishing the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), stating “A high civilization must not limit its efforts to science and technology alone but must give full value and support to the other great branches of man’s scholarly and cultural activity.”

Like its sister organization, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the NEA has been a political football, dependent on Congress for annual funding each year and periodic reauthorization. During the past 50 years Presidents and Congresses have helped and harmed the cause, but in today’s climate of gridlock, the current budget includes $146 million in NEA funding, the same as last year and 14% lower than in 2010—only .012% of the federal budget. Scheduled floor debate this July on H.R. 2822 appropriating NEA funding was cancelled due to a Confederate flag provision found in the bill, leaving flat funding the probable outcome—yet again.

Pie Chart

Federal laws governing taxes and education also play heavily in arts policy and are equally subject to partisanship. Currently, we await the fate of arts education as the final version of national core curriculum standards are hammered out, and we remain alert to potential changes in charitable contributions tax incentives as comprehensive tax reform looms.

In the past 20 years, public arts funding at all levels decreased by 30%, when controlling for inflation. Since the NEA funds state arts councils, which in turn distribute grants at the local level, the network is vulnerable to political mischief all along the way. For example, in 2008, Governor Brownback completely dissolved the Kansas Arts Council. Likewise, Missouri’s current budget limits arts to $4.8 million—only 23% of the $21 million in taxes collected specifically for Missouri Arts Council grants. Missouri ranks 14th and Kansas 49th among all states on funding for the arts.

We in Kansas City benefit from regional and local arts councils, the One Percent for Arts program, the Missouri Nonresident Entertainer income tax, the city’s new Office of Cultural and Creative Services, just to name a few publicly supported entities.

It should also be noted that as public funding has declined, charitable giving has increased, with gifts to the arts growing faster than any other category. Moreover, as federal support has declined, local support has grown. This may be explained somewhat by favorable tax rates, a strong stock market and the decline in federal support. Overall, only about nine percent of nonprofit arts funding comes from public sources, but at least half is impacted by public policy. The stakes are indeed high and the associated outcomes remain vulnerable to partisanship.

The entire picture—public funding, charitable giving tax incentives and educational standards—constitutes a complex network of arts policy, highly reflective of economic factors, sometimes working smoothly, sometimes not so much—at its best, a delicate ecosystem, at its worst a devil’s playground.

One can only imagine George Washington’s disappointment in our haphazard, polarized approach to the arts. What would he think of any bunch of grownups who can’t seem to deliberate about our cultural survival without paralyzing partisanship. Let us meet on this KC Studio page to discuss a national priority we mutually value, with our eyes on the prize that Washington prescribed—the nurturance and preservation of our arts.

What’s at stake if public policy does not rise to the occasion? As William Blake (1757–1827), English poet and George Washington contemporary, wrote:

“When nations grow old, the Arts grow cold, And Commerce settles on every tree.”

The beauty of democracy is that it’s in our hands as stewards and advocates of the arts!

Americans for the Arts (AFTA) spearheads policy efforts from national to state and regional advocacy. Membership is free. For more information, www.americansforthearts.org. See also, Missouri Citizens for the Arts (MCA): www.mo4arts.org; Kansas Citizens for the Arts (KCA): www.kansasarts.org.

Susan Schmelzer

Susan Schmelzer is a community activist who has served in leadership roles on several boards, currently including the Executive Committee of Missourians Citizens for the Arts, which advocates for state arts funding. Her devotion to the arts began as a vocal music major, while her professional background spans careers in higher education and nonprofit consulting.

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