Let culture buffs fund the arts – not govt. bureaucrats

By Kevin Kane, The Lens contributing opinion writer |

In an opinion piece posted recently at The Lens, New Orleans’ online investigative news site, arts writer and editor Nathan C. Martin recently criticized the Louisiana legislature for cutting statewide funding for the arts. While Martin rightly celebrates Louisiana’s culture, his argument for increased government subsidies falls short. He claims that the budget cuts undermine the valuable asset that is our culture. But how can the legislature undermine something it has never been responsible for in the first place?

There are many reasons why Louisiana has “generations-old traditions like jazz, second lines, Mardi Gras Indians, zydeco and parade floats.” Our state’s unique history, geography and demographic diversity have all had a hand. If there is evidence that government support has been integral to any of these great traditions, Martin does not offer it.

If government funding were so vital to the existence of a rich local culture, wouldn’t other states have figured this out by now? 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.

Of course this is absurd. Just as New Orleans has its own culture, Minneapolis and Wichita have theirs. Each of these cultures has developed over many years and each appeals to some people but not others. State spending on the arts has never been a key factor in this process.

Some recognize that cultural traditions are created independently of government, but claim the state plays an important role in keeping these traditions alive. This, however, places too much faith in the government bureaucracies that deliver poor outcomes in so many other endeavors. To assume that taxpayer dollars are being used wisely just because they are dedicated to the arts is to ignore the rampant corruption and incompetence found in every other government realm. If the vitality of Louisiana culture depended on government support, we would all be in trouble.

The good news is that in a free society people voluntarily lend their support to the arts. This occurs in countless ways and has a track record of success that no government bureaucracy can match.

Preservation Hall, for example, was founded by individuals whose passion for traditional jazz spurred them to create a venue for the great musicians of New Orleans that had been fading into obscurity. Over the course of the past half-century it has grown into one of the most beloved jazz venues in the world. Its owners have succeeded in preserving one of America’s great artistic achievements while turning a profit.

Another example is Frenchmen Street in New Orleans. This once-moribund area has become a world-renowned destination for visitors and locals seeking a range of music that cannot be found on Bourbon Street. Once again, individuals in the private sector found a way to make money while showcasing Louisiana artistry.

Undoubtedly there are worthy artistic projects that have benefited from state funding. But ultimately, the development of “new and innovative forms of expression” that Martin praises does not hinge upon government funding. The human instinct to create and consume art is too powerful to be extinguished by lack of state support.

When it comes to supporting the arts, government just needs to get the basics right: Keep streets safe so artistic pioneers can revive blighted neighborhoods; remove unnecessary regulatory obstacles that might hinder enterprising investors in the arts, and ensure that our children have access to a quality education so that they, too, will someday become participants and protectors of Louisiana’s rich cultural heritage.

Kevin Kane is founder and president of The Pelican Institute, a New Orleans-based think tank that advocates free-market policies. A version of this essay appeared on the Institute’s website: pelicaninstitute.org

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  • You may be correct in your premise that artists will continue to create with or without government intervention. However, at some level you must concede that our tax dollars are better put to use in other, say, more practical ways.

    Here is a current breakdown of government expenses…
    source: http://www.warresisters.org/pages/piechart.htm

    Total Outlays (Federal Funds): $2,650 billion
    MILITARY: 54% and $1,449 billion
    NON-MILITARY: 46% and $1,210 billion

    If we cut military spending in half, wouldn’t that give us a bit more money to encourage, educate, and proliferate the arts in America? After all, throughout history, the greatest cultures have always been renowned for their art and architectural achievements. Who are you kidding? In your op ed did you once question military spending? I can almost bet that you would defend current military spending to the death. not to mention Homeland Security, the DEA, ICE, and other para-military endeavors.

    It is easy to label things as low priority but your argument would be much more convincing if you would have told your readers those things that you would consider high priority for the government to fund. Or are you afraid your fascism would show through?

  • Nolamotion

    How disappointing that The Lens runs this sad piece by that sad “institute.” The author worships the mythical “free market” that does not exist due to human failings like greed that corrupt said marketplace and tilt it out of balance. The arts–and regulations–are as vital as money to providing a good quality of life. And regulations are necessary to keeping the marketplace fair. Does the author believe the 10 Commandments, which are regulations, keep us from coveting, stealing, killing and bearing false witness? If only they truly did! We are fraught with failings, and not funding the arts represents a major failure in the quest to be civilized.

  • mikenola

    Your opinion editor, Kevin Kane has chosen to be disingenuous with his choices of cities to compare. Wichita and Minn. are both fine cities, but have very small reputation as ‘arts or cultural centers’, where as New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago or even Taos New Mexico or Las Vegas would be more appropriate to draw comparisons to.

    All of those have very active artists groups and artistic endeavors, and all would crumble without government support.

    Their museums are world class, and their art reflects their well defined and vibrant cultures, unlike the cities your editor chose. Those cities he chose, pride themselves on being “middle america”, “heartland communities”, and “blue collar working man” cities. There is nothing wrong with those cultures, but they are vastly different than ‘artistic’ cultures.

    The elephant in the room of his argument is that those private donors get huge tax breaks because of their donations and support of the arts. If, as Kane suggests, the Government should not be involved then those tax breaks have to go away and that will reduce the amount given by billions of dollars. He seems to forget that in our national culture, we have enshrined the idea that paying less in taxes is the primary goal of every American with a pot to pee in. We of course want more but don’t want to pay for it.

    I would be curious to find out who financed his college education and if he ever received tax refunds? both of those are the government funding of a private citizen, something he wants to refuse to the cultural livelihood and attraction of states like Louisiana.

    Lets face it, with the ‘culture’ gone we would have no tourists, and with out tourists we would have little to no industry except shrimping and crawfish and who but the tourists brought back the enjoyment of those items to their heartland homes in Wichita? that is part of the culture he wants to defund.

  • Maggie Calmes

    @NolaMotion : We appreciate your thorough read and feedback on this piece. For the (web) record, this piece was published as an opinion from a contributor, and the beliefs and thoughts expressed here are Mr. Kane’s, just as Mr. Martin’s preceding piece was a product of his thoughts on arts funding. The content of this section does not reflect the beliefs of The Lens.
    We open this section to folks from around town who feel strongly enough to put pen to paper, or fingers to key board, about issues affecting the New Orleans community. Please feel free to contact me should you wish to write for this section.

    @mikenola : Thank you for your response to this article. One note, though: Mr. Kane is a contributor, not an opinion editor.

    -Maggie Calmes
    Engagement Editor

  • michaeltmartin

    This author should do more research into arts funding and realize that his arguments above are based on conjecture masqueraded with free market ideology. Numerous studies have been written that show that arts investment by the big, bad government is a net positive return on investment.

    Further, if we look to Europe, this author would see that free market ideology and arts funding are not mutually exclusive. The Eurozone, being reliant on neoliberal ideology as much as the United States, funds arts development and has come up with some very good results, namely that their cities are dynamic and creative places not moribund holes fitting only for Greyhound bus stations.

    Of all the things for a government to fund, arts are such a small percentage of the budget, yet their ability to offer a positive return on investment leaves them as one of few government outlays that are profitable. If we look to the successful cities in the United States we see that government support for the arts is alive and well. This is not a coincidence.

    This authors painfully myopic view is troubling and his use of arts funding to make a point about the free market is only a way to avoid questioning the worth of his ideological sacred cows.

    Here is a link to an Americans for the Arts study that looks into the economic impact of the arts. Maybe this author would benefit from its perusal


  • @Michael True: My opinion piece was about government funding of the arts, not military spending. I do not defend current military spending “to the death” because I claim no expertise in that area. If we did cut military spending in half, my position on funding the arts would remain unchanged.

    BTW, fascist governments are happy to spend on the arts because they seek to control the arts. Leaving the arts in the hands of free citizens is not just economically beneficial, it guarantees greater freedom of expression.

    @Nolamotion: Free market advocates do not deny the existence of greed and corruption, or claim that regulations are unnecessary, or that the arts are not vital. You are simply resorting to a straw man argument.

    @mikenola: There was no trickery in my choices. There are more cities in the US that resemble Minneapolis and Wichita than New Orleans or San Francisco. NO is one of a handful of cities that can be labeled as centers for the arts.

    My point is that if government had a major role to play in this, the Wichitas of the world could simply ramp up the spending and turn themselves into meccas for the arts. It would never happen, though, because the cultural forces that create places like NY and NO are beyond the control of government bureaucrats. The notion that these cities would lose their cultural standing for lack of government funding is laughable. Again – please demonstrate how Louisiana’s cultural heritage is the product of those wise men in Baton Rouge.

    BTW, I did not argue that tax deductions should be removed for donors to the arts. And the government did not fund my college education.

    @michaeltmartin: Americans for the Arts is an organization that was created to lobby for government funding of the arts. They are funded by groups like the National Endowment for the Arts, because the NEA is not allowed to lobby. Essentially, they are a tax dodge used by the NEA and other similar groups. Their studies are about as credible as the studies that owners of football teams trot out when they want the taxpayers to build them a new stadium.

    As for investing in the arts, I’m all for it as long as it is done voluntarily. I support the arts and encourage others to do the same. If too many American cities are “moribund holes” it is not for lack of spending on the arts.

  • As an Artist myself I agree 100% with Kevin.
    That said, I believe in Public Art.
    However, a portrait of the Artist as a Government Asset takes away the necessary facet Tension & Compression that drives honest creativity. It lays such a venture as Human Expression in the hands of assholes in Congress, like Jesse Helms, or the whims of our own equivalent at the local level. It makes for a Fat & Happy Art Scene which takes for granted their place in Culture and their responsibility to The People. Culture exists before, yet informs, Government and Society —if we’re lucky and play our cards right.

  • Rich people have TERRIBLE taste in art! If it’s up to them, all art will be gross and soulless!

    Rob the rich and use the money to make art! The most beautiful work of art is the expropriation of the rich!