Bloomberg.com and Art

I’ve written before about how excellent the books/art coverage is at Bloomberg.com, and how much this surprises me. (It shouldn’t, I know.) Still, when I came across this editorial by Jeremy Gerard about the new NEA chairman Rocco Landesman, I assumed it would be some sort of anti-arts funding diatribe . . . but no!

[Landesman] told the Times that he has a new slogan for the agency: “Art Works.” The phrase, he said, is “something muscular that says, We matter.” As in: We matter “as an economic driver,” the Times explained.

Those words make Landesman seem less like a game-changer than someone versed in a tired and dubious argument that goes like this: The arts should be funded because they generate income by providing jobs and supporting ancillary businesses, as when people attending concerts or Broadway shows hire babysitters, go out to dinner, park in garages and so forth.

If that’s the criterion for funding, however, the NEA should just support the Broadway producers and movie studios that employ the most people and sell the most tickets. They “work” on an economic level. Even there, however, it’s a flawed argument, because the numbers will never match those of businesses — legal, financial, service — that also provide customers for garages and restaurants, and in much greater numbers.

Market-driven culture is all well and good, but it’s not what John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson had in mind when they laid the groundwork for a federal agency dedicated to the arts. They supported creativity that isn’t beholden to a bottom line. Not every artist will be Isaac Stern or Meryl Streep or Jennifer Bartlett, but for each one who makes it into the mainstream, a hundred more are struggling to move the form forward, creating a cultural identity. The payoff for encouraging them will rarely be measurable in economic terms.

So here’s a different strategy for the arts endowment. Take a leaf from the Broadway producers’ playbook. Create a public-private alliance to fund the NEA so it can really begin making the arts central to the lives of all Americans. Commercial producers pay publicly subsidized companies to get new shows on their feet before taking the plunge on Broadway. Such commingling used to be verboten; now it’s business-as-usual.

I say, do it on a grand scale. Just three commercial cultural industries — Hollywood studios, the recording industry and Broadway — together generate $20 billion in domestic sales annually, according to their trade associations. A minimally invasive tax of one-half of 1 percent would instantly add $100 million to the NEA’s coffers. [. . .]

Drop the motto, Rocco. Art matters, period.

I’m not sure how well something like this would work (although I am sure that every one of those industries would complain about such a tax, as would numerous Republican congresspeople), but it’s an interesting idea worth exploring. And any proposal that wants to make “arts central to the lives of all Americas” is cool with me.

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