Arts and Public Funding

Recently a news article in the St. Paul Pioneer Press (linked here) sparked a great deal of discussion about art and public financing.  Other hatchet jobs appeared (like this one) and soon there was a growing cry railing against “wasting” taxpayer money on these frivolous projects.  I ended up involved in some of these discussions personally. Coming in the midst of the Minnesota Orchestra’s ongoing labor dispute, these stories and the response truly grated me—for my own sanity, let me respond to some perennial questions about whether or not we should pay for all these artistic extravagances. It is an important discussion to have, and to revisit often.

What’s wrong with these stories?

One of my big problems is the reporting is it is so… lazy.  It is the same formula used to attack any public expenditure, from arts to education or defense spending. You comb through a huge budget to find one particular item, hold it up as ridiculous and worthy of scorn through snarky comments (if not outright mischaracterizations) without once asking for a justification of it. Then you quote someone from an organization that exists solely to attack items of this kind, and throw in a canned quote from a politician from the opposite party that is trying to generate some news coverage. It’s like finding an expensive hammer in the army’s budget, quoting someone from Women Against Military Madness about the “out of control military-industrial complex” and throwing in a quote from a liberal Democrat. So predictable it’s worthless.

This just seems like such a huge waste of money when budgets are so tight.  Can’t we spend that on roads?

I agree that for many taxpayers, $10,000 sounds like a huge sum.  Heck, I’d love a check for $10,000.  And I’m sure many see that as a particularly huge sum to spend on art.  I’d counter that in the scope of the state’s budget, and even for the State Arts Board, $10,000 is a pittance.  The state’s budget is $34 billion.  That $10,000 wouldn’t buy a road… it would barely pay for a driveway.  Even if it were given to an artist in cash no strings attached, it certainly wouldn’t be enough for him or her to live the high life for a year.  And most grants given out require some sort of a cash match, so this grant is little more than seed money, or start up money, that makes it possible for an artistic endeavor to happen.  So this amount is tiny to the point of insignificance to the overall budget, but hugely important for allowing an artist to make art.

Shouldn’t the public have an opinion in the art that’s being made?  We paid for it, after all.

Yes, I absolutely think the public should have an opinion—and that isn’t just a grudging admission, I truly want the public more involved at all levels of the art.  Art needs an audience to really live.  But that brings up practical questions… who should be involved, at what level and in what capacity? How to you give the public a voice without forcing art to happen by committee? How can the public protect its investment without stifling the creativity needed to produce it in the first place? Someone will always have a problem with this or that line item from any budget… that’s just human nature. And if we try to force universal consensus, we’re going to fail miserably. Let’s look at the new light rail line going through the southwest suburbs. On the eve of going forward with the project, someone raised an objection, and then others (many of whom didn’t want publicly funded mass transit to begin with, especially in their neighborhood) argued that since not all questions were answered the project was too controversial to continue.  Soon the whole thing devolves into a shouting match, and we’re in a heated argument that most considered closed.

Well, shouldn’t there at least be greater oversight in the decision-making process?

I personally think the State Arts Board and the regional arts councils do a tremendous job at oversight, and try to be as transparent and apolitical as they can. They make sure all grant applications are evaluated by a panel of knowledgeable community members and arts administrators; these panels look for great art projects that also speak to the community. There are many different viewpoints involved, different backgrounds, preconceptions and values to ensure a diversity of opinions. I’ve been both a panelist and an applicant, so I know of what I speak. Grant cycles are always very competitive and discussions about merit and impact are generally quite lively. These are always open to the public and they are as transparent as can be.  Nearly everything is accessible to the public on demand.

So I’m surprised that the author makes no mention of how and why this applicant got her grant, under what program, or for what purpose. No chance for the artist to explain, justify or elaborate… her project is just held up as ridiculous with no explanation. Is this a misuse of funds? Or an inadequately explained project?

Isn’t the Arts Board worried about misused or mismanaged funds?  Shouldn’t there be controls after a grant is made?

Yes, there should be a way to weed out wasteful spending and misused funds. And there is… artists who receive grants have to do regular reporting and submit budgets with line item reporting, that shows the proposed numbers and how they compared to the actuals. Significant differences need to be explained.  Plus, artists have to submit a narrative report along with the budget, with documentation showing how money was used to fulfill the intended outcomes.  If the money can’t or won’t be used as it was originally intended, the funder can demand its return—as the State Arts Board when the Minnesota Orchestra canceled its season.

Many of us think the Arts Board is so terrified about negative publicity that their reporting mechanisms are demanding to the point of being oppressive, forcing endless justifications that try to pre-empt political controversy instead of being genuinely useful at seeing how impactful the art was. And even then, it’s easy to drum up controversy and force an artist onto the defense… like the “controversy” over nudity in a recent Fringe Festival show (story can be found here). Never mind that the show provided multiple warnings about the content.  Never mind that it was part of a famously experimental theater festival, one that featured hundred shows.  Never mind that nudity was integral to the story and non-titillating, or that the show was a commercial and critical success. One person gasped about nudity and public art… and suddenly the Arts Board has to do a apologetic media tour trying to “prove” that public money isn’t funding sin. Or in another case, someone with an axe to grind did an “exposé” on how money was being wasted by artists who simply were funding expensive vacations for themselves.  Panicked, the Arts Board announced that no money could be used for any activity taking place out of state—no research, interviews, advanced training, nothing.

Who gets to decide whether the funds are being misused? How many safeguards must be in place? I don’t mean this in a snarky way, or in an exasperated throw-up-my-hands-in-despair kind of way. Public art has to have public support, but where can we draw the line so that we don’t make it impossible for legitimate artists to work their magic, but at the same time don’t wantonly waste public money? As an analogy, at what point do we essentially make child-proof caps and tamper-resistant packaging so strong that we can’t get at the good stuff inside?

If we’re being asked to pay for art, I wish the artists would communicate better and not come off as condescending or write us off as if we don’t get it. 

I fully agree that artists need to be able to communicate with the public, and to explain it to people outside their bubble. And I readily concede that some artists can be insular and come off as condescending. My objection with this article is that the artists are forced to try to explain their art to people who have made a political career of attacking the arts as wasteful. Phil Krinkie (with or without the Taxpayers’ League) has made it his life’s work to attack public spending on any project, and he worked diligently to defeat the arts amendment. I think convincing him of the value of public art is too tall an order for any artist.

Let me conclude by saying that I understand some people don’t think arts should get public funding.  A few years back, however, the state taxpayers passed the Legacy Amendment to our state constitution—we freely chose to create a new, special tax that would fund arts and other cultural projects.  This debate is over.  With public funding comes responsibility; arts supporters have a real obligation to ensure the taxpayers money isn’t spent on frivolous projects, and have to recognize that simply because someone dreamed up an art project doesn’t mean it has to get funded.  But please, in return can we put an end to the baseless attacks that suggest—uncritically—that arts are inherently frivolous and unworthy of support?  And if it turns out that a project was questionable… do we have to throw the baby out with the bathwater?


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