Beyond the Culture Wars: A Conversation

January 13, 2014

Why should the arts be publicly funded?

By J.T. Rogers and Eric Helland

Originally published online and in-print in American Theatre magazine, a publication of Theatre Communications Group. Re-posted with permission.

The full conversation between J.T. Rogers and Eric Helland can be played by clicking on the above video. As you scroll through this story, you can click on videos to play snippets of key points that were made during the discussion.

Playwright J.T. Rogers and economist Eric Helland have been friends since childhood. Rogers, the author of Blood and Gifts, The Overwhelming and other plays, and Helland, a professor of economics at Claremont McKenna College in Los Angeles and a former adviser to the White House under President George W. Bush, found themselves, as they grew to adulthood, engaged in raging political disagreements. One ongoing argument concerns the propriety and the efficacy of public funding for the arts.

On more than one occasion, Rogers and Helland have been asked to share their well-reasoned disagreements with an audience. The latest such event was an early-August session at New Dramatists in New York City, organized by American Theatre and dubbed by the speakers “Beyond the Culture Wars: Arts Funding in America, Part 2.” (Part 1 took place last year in the same venue and can be viewed by clicking here.) Here is a brief selection from their conversation.

I want to start with what I call the “nuts and bolts” case, which a lot of us in the theatre feel very strongly about and that we think doesn’t get enough play in the public arena, certainly not in the political arena. For lack of a better term, call it “bang for your buck” argument. If you look at figures from, say, 2010, you find that the arts in the country brought in $1.9 billion worth of income (and you can also argue that that figure is far below the actual amount generated by arts activity). So, since the arts provide such an important economic engine, why is the government so culturally and financially miserly? The figure I have is $167 million given out by the NEA in 2010. A survey of 171 theatres that got NEA funding indicated that it provided a median average of 2 percent of their donated income, and covered a paltry 1 percent of their expenses. Yet, again, the “bang for the buck” was tremendous. If that is the model, then why on earth are we not increasing that investment?

At the same time, in-kind donations to the arts is at a five-year low. So you’ve got funding from non-government agencies dropping precipitously while the NEA percentage is shrinking as well. What kind of reaction is that to a successful model?

ERIC HELLAND: Your argument is essentially that “this has a big effect on the community.” But first, remember that the numbers you quoted are actually about matching funds—as you well know, NEA policy basically is that it can’t support 100 percent, and so you need to add matching funds to it. In practice, I would turn that around and ask, “Is it really a good arts policy in this country to be funding organizations such that for every dollar you commit, those organizations can actually raise that much money independently?” The NEA sort of trumpets that policy when they say, “Ah, you know, we give to organizations to sort of enable them to raise money.” The question you have to ask is: Could those organizations have raised the money otherwise? If the government is giving $1, and in private matching funds, organizations are picking up another $9 or $10, as the case may be, is that necessarily a good thing from the point of view of arts policy? Or are we simply funding organizations that actually have the ability to raise the $9 anyway?

ROGERS: I’ve heard that argument, and it refuses to acknowledge the power of the federal government. What happens when the arts organizations get funds from the NEA is that it earns the imprimatur of the NEA—that dollar is an appreciated dollar, worth more than one given from, say, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

HELLAND: So your number one idea is basically that the NEA gives money and therefore pick-your-favorite-arts-organization is able to raise additional funds because it has the government’s imprimatur? I don’t dispute that, I’m just not sure it’s a good idea, as a nationwide policy for supporting the arts, that we’re now moving funds toward places that the government has basically certified. I could see why a foundation might do that— it’s safer than giving a riskier grant to someone without the seal of approval. But is this “okay” from the government attracting any funds that would not otherwise be given to the arts, rather than just moving the funds around? I don’t know of any evidence that suggests that’s the case.

The second argument seems to be something about overall health of the economy, the argument being that the arts are in some ways generating more income by virtue of that government grant. In economics, this often goes by the name of “multiplier effect”—put money into the arts, and you get an expansion of overall economic activity, because you create jobs. I have intellectual problems with this, for the same reason I have problems with stadiums being funded at taxpayer expense—these tactics only work when there’s so much of a significant slack in the economy that money wouldn’t be spent otherwise. The economic argument goes back 70 years to John Maynard Keynes, who pointed to the need in slack times for people to stop saving and spend more. Keynes was making the argument for a whole economy with a large number of unemployed resources. But the arguments that are being made for stadiums or for the arts, in terms of boosting the economy, are usually only looking at particular communities, and logic simply suggests that it comes at the expense of that money being spent elsewhere—unless you think there’s just a lot of money sitting in mattresses.

ROGERS: I would love for that to be true. But are you really equating stadiums with the arts?

HELLAND: I’m deliberately doing this to antagonize you. Here’s the argument: If I were to build a stadium in downtown Claremont, Calif., it would attract a lot of people who would come there because there’s a sports event or something. You can make exactly the same argument about a theatre or an art museum—people sort of come in, and it attracts other businesses.

ROGERS: Yes, but if we’re using that crass, half-flippant “bang for your buck” title, we have to recognize that all studies show that the arts are vastly more income-generating than sports.

HELLAND: Right, because the consumers of the arts are wealthier. I’m not saying adding to the total income of a community is bad, I’m just saying it’s not a good argument for a subsidy. The new stadium is great news for Claremont, but not-so-great news for whatever nearby suburbs’ restaurants aren’t getting the business. I think this is never a good way for any organization to justify a subsidy. It may be a great reason for Claremont to want to have a strong, vibrant local arts community, but it’s not really a good argument for a nationwide subsidy, because it’s coming at the expense, presumably, of whatever person didn’t get the art museum, the stadium…

ROGERS: So, then, are you pulling the old canard, saying, “You want your money for your theatre and that means that other people won’t get their money”?

HELLAND: No, I’m actually not, I’m going to pull that canard later. I think there’s a different argument here. Having a strong, vibrant arts community, having a local stadium, having all of these things may be good—and there may even be very good cases to be made for funding them; it’s just not this case. And the reason is that you’re not taking into account what’s not seen—you’re not taking into account the decrease in income going somewhere else. It’s just a transfer. Let me give you a counter-example within the arts—the 1930s WPA, probably the most successful arts program you can point to in our nation’s history.

ROGERS: When Obama took office, there was a lot of hope that this was the time to have a WPA again, to generate income, to have a renaissance in the theatre and in the arts, and also create jobs for people unemployed. When that didn’t happen, there was a great deal of frustration.

HELLAND: The WPA did three really interesting things that people forget. Number one, it was extremely decentralized, and this is important. Centralized grant-making authority is kind of antithetical to the whole purpose here. Number two, it only gave money to people who were unemployed. It gave money more or less across the board to anybody that could vaguely prove they were an artist—and within that broad scope of people, they found some amazing artists, artists who weren’t making a living from their art, but who were then able to begin their careers and establish their reputations.

Number three, the WPA took place during the Depression. Because unemployment was so high, what you really wanted to do was get people back to work. If you were to go with the stadium example, say, in the midst of the Depression, the argument would be, “Look, there are a lot of unemployed construction workers at the moment, and people are very afraid, because there’s a recession.” So, as Keynes would argue, anything you do to move money out of people’s savings and basically put it in circulation, in any capacity, means you’re increasing essential economic activity. So, the important thing with the WPA is it could have been a stadium, it could have been arts funding—the big thing was the slack in the economy. And we remember that as a success story, right? Road building, building dams—but it had a great deal to do with 30 percent unemployment. More recently, during what we call the “Great Recession,” we didn’t have unemployment anywhere near that level.

ROGERS: All right, but you keep going after the idea of subsidies. What I’m putting forth is: “The theatre pays for itself and more, so why aren’t we investing in that?” And you’re saying, “Yes, yes, yes, you’re making the subsidy argument!” But the fact is we are living in a culture, in an economic model, in a political culture, where basically, once you get past defense, everything is subsidy. So then, perhaps I’m going down a dog-eat-dog road, which I’m not entirely comfortable with…

HELLAND: A part of the discussion you hear a lot is that arts subsidy is small—“Well, it’s less than a dollar per person in the U.S.” And it is, it’s less than a dollar a day. But then you get into the “What about the starving Haitian children?” argument, my favorite economic fallacy of all time. You can say, “For the price of the NEA budget, we can save 50,000 Haitian children.” The point is, once you’re into that “my subsidy is more deserving than yours,” you are always going to lose to starving children. When we come down to talking about how we want to subsidize things we like, and don’t want to subsidize things we don’t like, I’m suggesting that as a matter of course, once you go down that path, you are going to end up with anything that saves human lives winning out. I don’t think that’s a good argument for funding anything.

ROGERS: You can’t disagree with the fact that starving children must be fed, that people who are dying is more important than anything. But surely you can name some things that you believe should be subsidized…

HELLAND: Yeah, I think there’s a principled case to be made for certain subsidies, but I’m just saying that the “this is small” argument seems to me to be basically a statement of preferences.

One thing I believe worthy of subsidy would be cultural preservation. We should have museums of some variety that preserve our cultural heritage for the next generation. Even if the average American visits no museums in a year, it’s still the case that you and I and, presumably, everybody hearing this would agree that it would be a terrible tragedy to lose that cultural heritage.

I think theatre sort of fits the subsidy model. One of the great joys of live theatre is being able to attend performances, and yet the problem is much like that of newspapers—if enough people don’t participate, it goes away. Theatre has enormous setup costs and very low incremental value, as that value comes from one more person attending the theatre. So I’ll go out on a limb and say that theatre is worthy of subsidizing, because to the extent that it disappears, it’s gone.

Thirdly, I think there’s actually a pretty good case to be made for subsidizing the training of people in the arts—for carrying artistic traditions on generation to generation. And the reason is that art, as opposed to popular culture, is generally something you’re never going to be able to capture the full benefits of in terms of renumeration, even if you’re a great artist. It’s much like someone who does basic science—the fact that someone writes an amazing play, a play that endures for the ages, almost by definition means the playwright isn’t going to be rewarded for all the benefits he or she has given to society.


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