In 1989, Immersion, a photograph more commonly known as “Piss Christ”, triggered a debate about federal funding the arts that has raged for nearly three decades. Piss Christ, by artist Andres Serrano, featured a wooden crucifix submerged in a vial of the artist’s own urine. Critics questioned why the National Endowment for the Arts gave Serrano $20,000 in taxpayer funds to support the work. Serrano’s defenders sought to frame the debate in First Amendment terms. The critics, they contended, were anti-free speech. But was this framing fair or accurate?
The transparency organization Open the Books recently released a report on federal funding for the arts that sheds new light on this debate. Open the Books takes a dispassionate approach and essentially submerges the debate in a vat of data that didn’t exist in 1989.
While the report found a number of examples that ranged from silly to salacious (i.e. $10,000 to help fund a dance with the Saguaros cactus and $55,000 to help produce “The Feminist Porn Book”), the report breaks new ground regarding the true scope and sources for funding of the arts.
The report includes two key findings.
First, federal funding for the arts is a tiny fraction – a rounding error – of overall funding for the arts. The report found that for the nation’s 2,099 nonprofit entities in the arts community, federal grants amounted to just .2 percent – one-fifth of one penny – of their total assets ($146.2 million in grants to $64.2 billion in total assets).
Second, the report found that recipients of federal funding often are awash in cash and do not need any help from taxpayers. As this graphic illustrates, entities with assets of more than $10 million received $84 million in federal grants. The most notable example: “The Met” in New York City – the Metropolitan Museum of Art – has more than $3.7 billion in financial assets, yet received $1.2 million in grants from the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities (NFA-H).
The data is clear. Federal funding is a tiny portion of the pie and the arts will survive just fine without the NEA.
This contradicts the many elites who see the NEA as vital. Consider Robert Redford’s impassioned plea:
“In 1981, the National Endowment for the Arts played a fundamental role in helping me create Sundance Institute. The NEA generously contributed a $25,000 grant to assist us [in creating the Sundance Institute] …
“The proposed defunding of the NEA’s budget would gut our nation’s long history of support for artists and arts programs and it would deprive all our citizens of the culture and diversity the humanities brings to our country.”
By 1981, Redford had achieved real fame and wealth and could have started Sundance entirely with his own money. Today’s data shows Redford is simply wrong about the arts being gutted. Eliminating the NEA would not gut anything – 99.8 percent of arts funding would remain intact. If he is worried about that .2 percent make a few calls to George Clooney, Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio and Meryl Streep for the rest.
The question is not: “Why isn’t the federal government doing more?” The question is: “Why aren’t elite institutions and individuals like The Met and Redford doing more?”
As the Open the Books report notes:
“In the arts community, there is a stark contrast between the haves and have-nots. We found that 71 charitable organizations, with at least $1 billion each in assets, received nearly $120 million in federal funding since 2009. The ‘starving artist’ organizations – 1,027 organizations with assets under $1 million – received just $41 million in federal grants (FY2016).”
In the real world, federal budgets are all about priorities and tradeoffs. Every dollar that goes to something is a dollar that can’t go to something else. This is not a thought experiment. This is real life.
The truth is, no one hates the arts. People on both sides love the arts, but have an honest disagreement about how the arts should be funded and by whom. Still, if artists do not want Washington politicians to play art critic they should not put their future in the hands of those politicians. If federal funding disappears, no one should fret. The Open the Books report proves that abundant support will remain.