Ministry of Controversy

Just a few words more on funding

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Before my local cultural funding controversy—which included money for our historic botanical gardens—dies away (big fuss made, funding restored, end of story one hopes), I am sharing some further thoughts on this recurring phenomenon. Because it's been happening since I began to notice—sometime in the late 80s—and will continue to happen all over the U.S., especially as state and local economies continue their downward path.

First, it's always been a fight over pennies and it always will be. One legislator here made the comment, “Every year we end up arguing for 6 weeks over less than 1 percent of the budget.” It was the same with the big federal controversy over the NEA about 20 years ago. At the time, the entire NEA budget was the same as the cost of painting—not building, painting—a B-1B bomber. Yet the argument over this funding was front-page news for months, as congressman after congressman inveighed against the evils of Robert Mapplethorpe and Karen Finley. Everyone knew that including or not including this money would have no effect on the overall budget whatsoever. But maybe that was the point—to keep voters distracted while the larger problems of why and how and on what our resources are spent were left unaddressed.  And what else weren't we paying attention to while that was going on?

Having worked closely with our city officials on a couple projects, I always find that government bureaucracies are very good at doing a little with a lot. That's why I lack sympathy for them when it comes to these issues. On the other hand, I find that—having worked for a museum for 10 years—art museums (and botanical gardens and historical societies and theaters) must of necessity excel at doing a lot with very little. Every penny of whatever funding comes in has to be accounted for in triplicate, but the amazing thing is how much programming, much of it in the form of education and outreach, comes out of that tiny bucket of money.

Which makes it all the more insulting that arts and culture are basically treated in the U.S. as distractions rather than efficiently-run and essential elements of everything that makes living in any community worthwhile. They provide substance in a society where substance is increasingly lacking. The Europeans are better at recognizing this. 

I guess all we can hope for is that our botanical gardens, libraries, and museums will continue to be funded, because if that funding stopped, everyone would have to pay attention to our real fiscal problems. In such a grim reality, we'd need those institutions more than ever.

Posted by on December 7, 2010 at 6:28 am, in the category Ministry of Controversy.
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7 Responses to “Just a few words more on funding”

  1. Chris Upton says:

    We in the choir applaud you. And congratulations.

  2. John says:

    I think more and more people are getting sick and tired of “politics as usual”. With the surge of social networking & non-mainstream forms of media I see a change on the horizon, elected officials better bring about change quickly and/or solve problems or expect to be voted out of office (by the very crowd that voted them in). Say what you mean and mean what you say. Fine print, legal speak and hidden agendas won’t be tolerated much longer. Do I sound bitter? It probably comes from a lifetime of city park employment. The turnips are smaller and have less blood.

  3. Substance has always been lacking in North America and the European way is capable of bankrupting a nation. Cultural institutions can only survive with the support of private benefactors.

  4. Jeff Ball says:

    Well said Elizabeth. However, I tend to support Allen’s suggestion that we may well have to base all the funding for culture on the private side. There is a fair amount of agreement among strategists in the non-profit world that depending on government may soon, if not already, be a mistake. Fund raising staff are taking a very differet look at how they generate their revenue. I am optimistic that in ten years our cultural institutions and programs will be alive and well.

  5. anne says:

    The problem with funding things privately is that they will only reflect the interests and motivations of those who provide the funds; those people/corporations/foundations will naturally be wealthy. The interests of those who lack money or power may be lost, leading to very narrow and specialized museums, galleries, theaters, etc. Not very democratic. While government-funding can be insufficient and unwieldy at times, and isn’t completely fair, at least it can give voice to the dispossessed and underserved.

    I live in a county that recently voted to shut all of it’s libraries, much to the horror of many of us. After a second election where the funding criteria were revised, and those who neglected to vote in the previous election because they “couldn’t believe the libraries would actually be shut” bothered to vote, the library will re-open next year. Our government is “of the people, by the people and for the people”, but if the people won’t participate, it’s useless. Meanwhile, it’s a lot easier for those with money and power to accomplish these things with their own agendas in mind, while the rest of us wait for someone else to do it for us. At the very least, vote!

  6. Anne,
    Throughout history, the wealthy have funded what fascinated them and not what was in the best interest of the public. Actually, the interest of the public was irrelevant. It was, and continues to be, their money and they get to choose how it is to be allocated. Whatever culture they underwrite is better than no culture at all.

    The interest of the public is only served when government offers tax incentives to the wealthy to pay for projects that benefit the public.

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