Arts Issues: Funding the Arts

by The City Wire staff ( 33 views 


Editor’s note: John Jeter, music director and conductor of the Fort Smith Symphony, will pen an “Arts Issues” column to appear on The City Wire the second and fourth Friday of each month beginning in July. The column will cover a wide range of topics in the broad arts communities. Jeter can be reached at

Like all things excellent, the Arts, artists and artistic endeavors need support to survive and thrive. On an international level, the Arts are supported in a number of different ways with the approaches to funding being influenced greatly by social-political and artistic history. A look at how a few different countries support the Arts can be a real eye-opener.

Let’s look at the United States.

America has one of the youngest histories of artistic involvement in the Western world. For the sake of this discussion, I am excluding the important and beautiful folk Art of native Americans, this is a topic for later discussion.

American political history has typically been one of promoting the private sector and embracing small government. The reality of how these ideals have manifested themselves can be very different sometimes (government is now huge for example) but the idea of keeping government out of things has to a great degree influenced minimal government support for Arts programs. Generally speaking, Arts organizations in America have been and are still supported by their revenue generation (about 44%) and contributed income (about 56%). Of the contributed income anywhere from 3% to 13% percent comes from federal, state and local public dollars.

In 1965, the National Endowment for the Arts was established as an independent agency of the U.S. federal government that offers support and funding for projects exhibiting artistic excellence. The annual budget of this organization has varied from $90 million to $160 million depending on the financial and political climate of the time. If one includes state and local dollars the annual amount for the Arts nationally is about $350 million dollars.

What is interesting to note is that the Arts generate $29 billion dollars in local, state and federal government revenue each year in this country. The Arts continues to generate more than $166 billion total — yes, billion — in economic activity in the United States every year. Philanthropy in the US is huge and the financial independence from a central government agenda leads to wonderful creativity and diversity in Art.

Interesting that in some countries philanthropy has a history of being discouraged. How could that be?

Let’s look at one of America’s favorite buddies, the French!

Since the 16th Century, the French believed the state should have a key role in sponsoring the Arts and that the Arts were a cornerstone of national prestige. In 1959 the position of Minister of Culture was created. This is an actual cabinet member post of the French government in charge of artistic and cultural matters. There is no equivalent position in the U.S. government. Government support for the Arts is enormous and as a result, private sector involvement tends to be discouraged.

There is a belief that quality of life through the Arts (as well as other services) is the duty of the government to offer and support. Arts issues tend to come from a centralized source which can sometimes lead to a stagnation of creativity and having a cabinet position for culture can create a sour mix of Art and politics. These two never mix! Sounds a bit like socialism to me, but somehow the French seem to get by pretty well. The French government kicks in about $10 billion a year for the Arts. Let’s see, that’s more than 20 times as much as the U.S. … ?

Since France and Germany have been in the news so much lately as the strongest financial pillars of Europe, let’s have a quick look at how the Germans view Art. In a word, “importantly.”

German support for the Arts is through the roof. They have an incredible tradition and most of the funding comes from city sources. Generally speaking, if you play full time in a German orchestra you are a well-paid government employee, with a few months vacation, professional leave, full health care and all the trappings. This form of Arts support still relays on public funds but is not centralized like the French system and more in tune with the needs of specific communities they way the U.S. system often is. German government spends about $13 billion a year on the Arts.

As one can see, there are a number of ways countries can support the Arts. There are countless examples to choose from and there are many ways to “get there.”

Yes, I wish the federal government supported the Arts much more than they do, however the philanthropic support here is amazing and as one can see, has some advantages. Let’s have both here in the USA!

I sometimes wonder from an Arts perspective what would happen if we decided for say, a five-year period to support the Arts on the level of some other successful countries. America spends 0.13% of its tax dollars on Arts and Culture while other countries such as France and Germany spend 1.3% to 1.8%. Even the financially strapped Ireland spends 0.4%.

Seeing the results of successful Arts programs and how they can effect people and entire communities, I can only imagine a society with an even greater artistic footprint here in America: The Poteau International Museum of American Art, the Greenwood International Ballet Company, the Fort Smith Symphony and Opera Company, the Lavaca Shakespearian Theater.

Wait a minute! The debt-ceiling, unemployment, divided government, global warming (for those who believe its man-made), recession, famine, illegal immigration, wars, rising fuel and food costs … Never mind.