Is Government Spending for the Arts the Whole Story?

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California’s 2019-20 budget, signed by Governor Newsom on June 27, contains an Easter egg for the arts: a $10 million increase in the general fund to the California Arts Council. The agency, which doles out money to arts groups throughout the state, received a near doubling of its annual budget from $16 million to $26 million. It was the largest increase for the CAC since 1999.

The state budget also contained $27.5 million in gifts for several California museums, including one-time allocations to the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust ($6 million), the Armenian Museum and Cultural Center ($5 million), the Korean American National Museum ($4 million), the Latino Theater Company ($2 million), the Italian-American Museum ($1 million), the National LGBTQ Center for the Arts ($500,000), and $9 million to San Diego’s NTC Foundation to help turn a long-empty building into a performing arts center. (The NTC Foundation was established to renovate 26 historic buildings at the former Naval Training Center and transform it into an arts district.)

The budget increase for the CAC actually represents the restoration of relative normalcy after a long period of under-funding. According to the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, California now invests 0.66 cents per person in the arts, which places it 26th out of 50 states in per capita spending. (Since you’re curious, Minnesota is number 1 at $7 per person; Hawaii, Maryland, Delaware, Massachusetts, New York, Wyoming, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Ohio round out the top 10.)

“It is clear that as the creative economy represents 7.1 percent of California’s gross state product, ahead of agriculture and transportation, an investment in the arts is a smart investment,” says Californians for the Arts executive director Julie Baker. California’s vast creative economy includes the film, TV, music and video game industries, areas in which it is a world leader.

While the recent increase in funding from Sacramento is good news for the arts in California, the U.S. still lags far behind other countries in government funding for the arts. But that doesn’t mean that the arts wither here. Let’s look more closely at how the U.S. approach to arts funding contrasts with other nations’.

The Great Recession led to a sharp decrease in cultural funding nationally. In 2011, the number reached a record low of 0.28 percent of the government’s non-military budget. Local government spending on the arts dropped 21 percent from 2008 to 2013; private funding declined by almost 9 percent. Those numbers haven’t bounced back significantly. In the 2019 budget, $155 million was allocated to the National Endowment of the Arts and the National Endowment of the Humanities. The population of the U.S. is about 327 million, so that’s about 47.4 cents per person, only part of which goes to the NEA.

Stacking Up Against The World

So how do other countries fare in public funding for the arts?

Germany spent $2 billion (1.8 billion euros) on the arts in 2018. On average, the country spends $20 per person on culture. Part of its budget goes toward purchasing contemporary art from living artists.

Northern Ireland, a country of 1.8 million people, spent $21 million on the arts in 2014, or $11.67 per person, according to a report in the . The Arts Council is funded in part by National Lottery funds.

France has a huge cultural heritage to maintain – its museums alone draw more than 20 million people per year. The French Ministry of Culture had a budget of $3.2 billion (2.9 billion euros) in 2016 – about 1 percent of the national budget. Culture is linked to the country’s strong tourism industry, which represents 7 percent of France’s GDP.

Sweden’s culture budget includes money for rock bands as well as the more traditional arts. It regularly spends about 2.6 percent of its overall budget on the arts.

Australia’s 2019-20 arts budget includes $31 million to support Australian popular music, and about half a billion dollars to expand the Australia War Memorial – an extraordinary expense for a country of less than 25 million. Arts spending averages well over $300 per citizen.

Finland, which uses lottery proceeds to fund part of its arts budget, allocated $523 million for the arts in 2017. With a population of about 5.5 million, that’s $95 per person.

England uses the National Lottery to help fund the arts through Arts Council England. Per capita spending on the arts varies depending on which part of the country you’re in. Londoners benefit to the tune of $269 per person. The total allocation for the arts will be $8.79 million (7.13 million pound sterling) per year between 2018 and 2022.

Government Spending Isn’t the Whole Picture

Of course, it’s tricky to compare policies and practices in the U.S. with the rest of the world. In Europe, there’s a centuries-long tradition of large-scale cultural patronage (it was common practice for royal courts to support orchestras and ballet companies), and post-World War II European nations largely adopted culture as one of the pillars of the welfare state along with health, social welfare and education.

In the U.S., on the other hand, private philanthropy has always played an important part in the world of culture. “Before the establishment of the NEA (in 1965), arts and culture support remained the project of urban elites, business communities, and institutional philanthropy,” writes Josephine Livingstone in The New Republic. “When the government did eventually intervene, it supported artists through passive systems like tax exemption for cultural organizations, and of course for the donations of their wealthy patrons.”

Given these profound differences in funding sources, it’s not fair to conclude that Americans care less about the arts than people in other nations. Our funding practices simply reflect our unique attitude toward the role of government and the importance of individual giving vs. public funding.

To a greater extent than anywhere else in the world, the arts in the U.S. depend on the largesse of individuals, corporations and foundations, as well as the not-for-profit status created for arts organizations by the federal government. Those sources reward cultural organizations that work diligently and inventively within that system, and governments play the role of facilitators rather than sources of money. It’s more Darwinian than other kinds of cultural funding – but it’s also quintessentially American.

Paul Hodgins is the senior editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at phodgins@voiceofoc.org.