Opinion
 

Get government funding out of the arts? Get real!

By Lamar White Jr., The Lens contributing opinion writer |

In a recent opinion piece for The Lens, Kevin Kane argued against government support for the arts. Louisiana’s richly indigenous culture is self-sustaining – and should be, Kane argued. His views are not surprising. A New Yorker in our midst by way of a Tulane education, he is founder of the libertarian Pelican Institute. But in this instance, ideology seems to get in the way of Kane’s grasp on reality.

“If government funding were so vital to the existence of a rich local culture, wouldn’t other states have figured this out by now?” Kane writes. “According to this logic, Minnesota and Kansas need only spend a few more millions of dollars on the arts and they would become destinations for the educated young newcomers now heading to New Orleans.”

The short answer to Kane’s hypothetical question is: yes. Other states have figured out the ways in which public funding supports the vitality of local arts and culture.

Thankfully, so have most Louisianans. By and large, we recognize the intimately symbiotic relationship between our culture and our public investments. The government promotes and provides logistical support for Mardi Gras, and it’s a wise investment. So are the “Hollywood South” tax incentives that have had a huge impact in attracting movie and television production. The incentives both juice the local economy and also – dramatically so, in the case of a TV series like HBO’s “Treme” — renew international enthusiasm for our culture and customs.

The government operates the Cabildo, owns and maintains Jackson Square, and pays a fortune so that the French Quarter is as clean as possible. And that’s not even to mention the huge impact of our universities, some of which are directly funded by government. All of which enjoy huge government subsidies. That’s especially true of the state’s largest “private” employer, Kane’s alma mater, Tulane, which enjoys both direct government appropriations for research and the generous tax breaks that incentivize rich alumni to keep donations flowing.

Way up in Central Louisiana, where I’m from, government – i.e. we, the people — paid for the City of Natchitoches to meticulously restore each and every brick on historic Front Street. For years, local taxpayer money has financed an elaborate Christmas lights festival, with some decorations created by folks with the local public works department. Investments like these are a big reason why sleepy little Natchitoches attracts as many as a million tourists annually. No one’s coming just to see the backdrop of Steel Magnolias anymore; they’re coming because Natchitoches has asserted itself as a leader in cultural and heritage tourism.

There is a whiff of scorn in Kane’s comparison of Minnesota and Kansas to culturally rich Louisiana. But our neighbors to the north also offer interesting insights on the intersection of culture and economics – lessons Kane would do well to heed.

Last month, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback, a Republican, completely eliminated public funding for the Kansas Arts Commission, a move that may please Kane but that many believe will be devastating to the Kansas arts community. Why? Because artists and local art councils in Kansas have relied on micro-grants from the Arts Commission to leverage other funding – private funding. Brownback apparently believes the Kansas Arts Commission can be privatized, and he has appointed a wealthy real estate broker “who is interested in the arts” to head up the effort. Here’s the problem, though:

Without an Arts Commission and accepted statewide plan, federal grants will dry up,” according to Beverly Strohmeyer, executive director of the Missouri State Council of the Arts.  “They really didn’t look forward enough into the effects of it,” she said.

And the repercussions won’t stop at the Kansas state line. Suzanne Wise, executive director of the Nebraska Arts Council, said Brownback’s elimination of state funding of the Kansas Arts Commission hit Nebraska artists hard. “The Nebraska arts community is horrified and saddened,” she said.

And, again, as Wise also understands, cutting public investments doesn’t motivate private investment to fill the gap – as Kane’s libertarian world view would hope. In the real world, where public and private economies are interdependent in complex and dynamic ways, cuts in public spending actually reduce private investment. Indeed, as Wise has found, government support is crucial when it comes to leveraging private dollars.

Programs approved by a state arts commission, she said, provide the “good housekeeping seal of approval” that helps private businesses and philanthropies sift through the sometimes overwhelming onslaught of funding requests from ever-needy arts and culture groups and individuals.

Wise’s insight is worth repeating: “… having government support through an arts commission is crucial to leverage private dollars.”

Minnesota is a different but equally pertinent story. Whenever the state government isn’t shut down, it invests heavily in the arts and in a multitude of ways. And, yes – to answer Kane’s question: the payback has been considerable. By no means a cultural wasteland, as Kane seems to think, Minnesota boasts 30,000 artists in residence and 1,600 arts organizations with an economic impact of $1 billion a year. Out of the 354 metropolitan areas in the United States and Canada, Places Rated Almanac ranks Minneapolis-St. Paul eighth in “variety and participation in the arts.” Small wonder, then, that for six years in a row, Morgan Quitno Press has ranked Minnesota (yes, Minnesota) “the most livable state in the nation.”

Back to Louisiana:

Kane’s misunderstanding of the interplay between public and private investments is never more obvious than when he posits the Frenchmen Street club scene as a pure case of cultural capitalism.

In fact, the Backbeat Foundation and the Let’s Be Totally Clear campaign for smoke-free bars and nightspots have utilized funding from the New Orleans Arts Council, the National Endowment for the Arts and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to foster innovative arts and music programming and community based events and projects in and around Frenchmen, Kane’s showcase of purely “private-sector innovation.”

Is this complex weave of public and private funding streams having the desired impact? As Sarah Palin might put it: You betcha. In New Orleans, according to a report issued by Mayor Landrieu’s office, the cultural economy accounts for 28,000 jobs, over $1.1 billion in wages, and hundreds of millions of dollars in additional economic impact. Festivals, which are heavily subsidized by the city, attract over 3.2 million tourists annually.

Of course, most Louisianans don’t talk about our “cultural economy;” we talk about our culture. Culture imbues and defines Louisiana identity. “There are many reasons why Louisiana has ‘generations-old traditions like jazz, second lines, Mardi Gras Indians, zydeco and parade floats,” Kane writes. “Our state’s unique history, geography and demographic diversity have all had a hand.” And government support for arts and culture? Kane wants to rule that out — no matter that it is a long and well-established part of our “history.”

Ultimately Kane’s fantasy of a world without government intrusion in arts and culture bumps up against the reality of his own modus vivendi. Kane’s Pelican Institute is itself dependent on government subsidy in the form of tax breaks for donations to non-profits. According to IRS 990 forms required of such non-profits, the founding of Kane’s “think tank” was made possible by a tax deductible donation of $240,000, nearly half of which was used to cover Mr. Kane’s salary.

Yes, indeed, government subsidy continues to enrich every aspect of our cultural, intellectual, and creative life down here in the swamps. Bienvenue en Louisiane, Mr. Kane, where culture is king.

Lamar White Jr. is a founding member of the Louisiana chapter of the New Leaders Council and a former special assistant to Alexandria Mayor Jacques M. Roy. He enrolls this fall in Southern Methodist University’s Dedman School of Law. His commentary appears on the website CenLamar.com.

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  • Beth

    I’m flummoxed by a libertarian group adopting the pelican as its symbol. The pelican symbolizes self-sacrifice for others, not Randian principles of “you’re on your own!” The gall (or Galt)!

  • Well said, Mr. White. Governments have supported arts and artists for thousands of years. In today’s world, if the government — i.e. “we the people” — don’t support art, and it becomes completely dependent on wealthy individuals, art will become ever more the province of the “elite.”