In Support of the Arts, Culture

Article excerpt

Proponents of the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities are raising alarm over the prospect of the United States abandoning its support of cultural institutions. Viewed from any objective perspective, that is a sad example of the Chicken Little syndrome ("The sky is falling, the sky is falling"). Large-scale support of America's art and culture does not depend on two federal agencies. The great bulk of the funding of our cultural institutions comes from private sources.

Individuals, business firms, and private foundations provide most of the money for the nation's museums, symphony orchestras, and theatre groups. These generous sums are in addition to the aid from states and localities. Comparisons of government aid to culture in the US with foreign government largess ignore the presence of a far more generous private sector here than abroad. Compared with the billions of dollars devoted to supporting cultural institutions, the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities together spent only $355 million in fiscal year 1994 - less than the revenues of US symphony orchestras alone.

What accounts for the cries of anguish about the prospective elimination of these modest sums? Many people fall into the trap of assuming that every issue demands a response from the government. Although the two federal foundations provide only a modest share of national cultural support, they supposedly "validate" artistic proposals. In this view, the award of a small grant by the National Endowments for the Arts or the Humanities signals that the recipient is worthy of private support. This notion is especially insidious. No federal agency should act as the national gatekeeper, judging which artists and cultural institutions deserve public and private support.

To counter in advance the charge that I am just a bean-counting Philistine, I note that my wife and I voluntarily support many community cultural institutions - including the art museum, the history museum, the sculpture park, the orchestra, and many others. …