Public Spending for Art

Article excerpt

HOW do you attach a value to art? Not an individual painting or play, but art itself and its effects on a society? The question is unanswerable; nay, it's meaningless. The cantata isn't accessible to the calculator.

Yet that's the conundrum facing federal and state budgetmakers asked to allocate funds to art. In a time of "more will than wallet," every public expenditure is expected to yield a return. But what's the return on art?

Whoever becomes the new chairman or chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Arts had better be prepared to answer that question.

The endowment distributes federal grants to orchestras, museums, theater groups, schools and universities, individual artists, and state arts councils to promote artistic achievement and education.

Created by President Johnson and given a hefty budget boost by President Nixon, the endowment has a legacy of strong bipartisan support. But the fiscal environment has changed.

Although President Bush has endorsed a proposal by the outgoing Reagan administration for a small increase in the endowment's budget for fiscal 1990, the agency still faces lean times. Since 1981 its budget has increased just 6.5 percent, to $169 million, while inflation has risen 31 percent over the same period.

If arts funding faces a challenge in Washington, it faces a crisis in some states. …