Mar 14, 2020 in Art
Should Governments Subsidize the Arts?

It is an undeniable and obvious that the arts play an essential role in the life of the society in general and individuals in particular. They serve various purposes, out of which the entertainment can hardly be considered the most important one. Hence, the arts promote social, intellectual, cultural, civic, and economic development of communities yet various artistic companies and institutions often face the problem of the lack of sufficient funds to launch and implement large-scale and small-scale intended projects. Therefore, art directors of different institutions tasked with making the arts available and accessible to the public have to balance between financial capacities and artistic aspirations with the former frequently outweighing the latter and dictating which shows and projects can be launched. On the one hand, it seems that since the arts play a vital role in the life of the society, it seems reasonable that governments should, at least partially, subsidize them. On the other hand, the impact and role of arts cannot be measured accurately with certain quantitative tools that would prove their usefulness and justify public funding of this domain. Overall, the question of whether governments should subsidize the arts is extremely complicated and calls for the in-depth discussion of the issue but, at the first glance, it is evident that the arts should receive public funding because of their significant social role.

Currently, funding of the arts differs across countries, and until recently, the USA significantly differed from the European countries in this respect. Hence, in Europe in general and in the UK and France, for instance, in particular, the governments provide larger parts of the arts funding. Nonetheless, since 2012, there have been introduced significant cuts in the state funding of this sphere in most European countries. It is impossible to forecast the impact it will have on the arts in the region and artistic institutions. Particular effects of this influence were already evident in France where world-known museums started closing because of the lack of financing, for instance, Musee Picasso faced “epic troubles” that lead to its closure while private museums, like the Louis Vuitton Foundation, have been thriving and opening since they did not have any financial constrains. Thus, Timberg (2014) claims that European model of arts funding is likely to become similar to that of the USA rather than vice versa.

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In the USA, there is no single source of the arts funding, and the infrastructure of this system is quite complicated. There are three main ways of the arts financial support in the country including direct public funding through the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and state, regional and local arts agencies, other types of indirect and direct public funding through different federal departments, and private sector contributions. The NEA provides a breakdown for each of these sources, according to which 40.7% of all funding of not-for-profit arts institutions consists their income. Since interest and endowment revenues constitute 14.4% of all funding, the contributed income from all three sources listed above amounts to 44.9%. Out of this contributed income, the individuals donate 20.3% to the arts funding, the corporations provide 8.4% while the foundations give 9.5%. Hence, federal government provides only 1.2% of funding but state and local ones allocate 2.2% and 3.3% of total funding respectively. As it can be seen from these figures, the government subsidies amount to rather small part of the total sum yet this money are essential for normal functioning of various arts institutions and the development of this direction in the country.

The arts have been present and played various important roles in the human society evolution since ancient times but only recently, there has emerged a question about their usefulness within the context of the public funding discussion. For instance, in the UK, this aspect has been actively discussed for several years now since the government is tasked with determining whether the purpose of the arts is more or at least as equally important as other spheres requiring subsidies and public funding. Thus, the UK Arts Council has defined that the arts have three primary intertwined goals that should justify the governmental decision to retain the current level of public funding accorded to artistic institutions across the country. The first purpose of the arts presupposes increasing individuals’ living capacities by assisting them in shaping the ability to “understand, interpret and adapt to the world around them”. The second one consists in enrichment of people experience by bringing “colour, beauty, passion and intensity to lives” while the third purpose concerns provision of a safe environment for developing and mastering all kinds of skills as well as improving self-esteem and confidence. While separate aims can be achieved through different means, only the arts allow fulfilling all three of them simultaneously in a highly pleasurable way.

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Irrespective of these purposes of the arts, governments still tend to consider the issue from the perspective of economic benefit. However, from this point of view, the arts are definitely good public sector investment since they can be the economic drivers. The main reason of such conclusion is a proven fact that the arts create new employment opportunities and generate tax revenue by their functioning. What is more, NASAA (2010, p. 2) emphasizes the fact that “A strong arts sector is an economic asset that stimulates business activity, attracts tourism revenue, retains a high quality work force and stabilizes property values”. The same conclusion has been achieved with respect to the UK arts sector as it can become evident from the report of the Local Government Association (2013). According to this report, if it is necessary to provide economic justification of the arts funding, it is possible to do it through consideration of the substantial benefits from them for the national economy in general and local economies in particular. Hence, the arts promote and significantly contribute to the visitor economy by attracting tourists from abroad and generating revenues. Exact data relating to this sector of US economy, which the arts created, were not available but in the UK, it was the fifth largest industry in the country as of 2011 and contributed more than 115 billion to the GDP of the country. Similarly, the arts provide new jobs along with generating about 700,000 employment opportunities in England alone during any given year. Besides, they have a recognized role in the promotion of small business and contribution to rural economies in addition to the national one, which makes them significant for any country. Therefore, from the economic perspective, the arts seem to be definitely worth governmental subsidizing.

Nonetheless, probably, the main benefits of the arts justifying a need for the government to fund the sector are not economic and financial but rather immaterial by nature. Thus, the arts perform educational assets, civic and cultural roles in addition to their economic function. The arts are important in educating young people since they promote their imagination and creativity and contribute to the success of the learning process. Through exposure of individuals of all ages to the arts, their critical thinking develops in addition to the improvement of innovative and communicative skills. There is also compelling evidence that the engagement of individuals in various kinds of arts enhances their self-esteem and self-confidence while also assisting in treating depression and other mental health disorders. At the same time, there is a counterargument that the beneficial educational role of the arts is present only in case of individuals’ active engagement in the process of producing or performing them while the large share of subsidies are directed to museums, theaters, and other avenues that allow people only to observe rather than participate in the arts. Therefore, this benefit of the arts is still debated yet it is undeniable that they help in developing the worldview of children and young people and benefit them in terms of providing new knowledge.

The above-mentioned role of the arts as civic catalysts seems to be even more important than the educational one. Hence, in line with this particular social role, the arts create a welcoming sense of place and a desirable quality of life…support a strong democracy. Concerning the quality of life, it is assumed that the main contribution of the arts is not related to economic measures, which the sociologists and other scholars commonly use to study this issue, but rather quality of life indicators, in particular individuals’ access to cultural assets and amenities and a possibility to enjoy meaningful and educational forms of entertainment, which the arts provide. Regarding the role of arts in the promotion of democracy, it can be understood through the quote by President John F. Kennedy who said that the artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state. The independent artists are tasked with challenging the authorities and existing social institutes and encourage their development as well as ensure that ordinary citizens can critically assess social issues and participate in the social life of the country. Without government subsidies, the artists and artistic institutions would become dependent on private individuals and corporations and may be obliged to choose between further funding and the betrayal of the public interests. As former Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport Jowell said, without government subsidies, there is a threat of the culture homogenization and its gradual turning into “a market-driven, bland, one-stage-fits-all arts scene which benefits no one except the accountants”. In order to avoid that, the governments should not decrease the amount of their subsidies for the arts but, on the contrary, increase them so that the arts would be less dependent on private individuals as well as corporate interests and more independent.

Irrespective of the above arguments, many people believe that governments should not subsidize the arts and offer their own no less convincing claims to support this position. First, it is argued that governments should fund the arts “no more than they should fund worship” since the state and the arts should be separated just like the state and the church are in order to guarantee the artists’ individual liberty and autonomy. Contrary to the above-mentioned claim that government subsidies can make the arts free of any undue influence, supporters of this position believe that state funding would turn them into obedient instruments of the authorities and deprive of artistic freedom to create whatever they want as well as challenge the existing social and political order. Second, the opponents of the arts state funding emphasize the fact that governments of virtually all countries of the world face serious financial problems, and public debts are immense today, which means that they should spend money only on absolutely essential things. This particular point of the debate is highly controversial since people views on what is essential in the country drastically differ from each other, and many individuals believe the arts to be essential thing.

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Third, the opponents develop the idea of artists’ dependence on the state in case of public funding of their endeavors and add that it would promote the culture of censorship in the country. This censorship would be expressed in the form of allocating funds only to the approved artists while those who do not comply with the government expectations would be gradually expelled from the sector. Finally, according to the supporters of this position, there is no need for straining public budget and allocating funds to the arts since they are quite self-sustainable. The recent estimates state that private donations to the US arts amount to $13 billion per year in addition to significant revenues of various artistic institutions. The complete reliance of non-public funding would allow profitable and attractive artists and institutions to survive while others would have to adapt to consumers’ tastes and offer products that would attract donations and customers. However, in such case, the arts would be commoditized, which may have negative impact on creativity and innovation.

In conclusion, the question of whether governments should subsidize the arts is highly controversial as well as complicated and is, thus, subject to the further research and discussion. Most of the counterarguments listed above seem to be reasonable and rational yet they miss the point about the true value of the arts. The matter is that they have always been an integral part of the human society performing primarily educational and social roles. Depriving them of government subsidies no matter how scarce they are will turn the arts into commodities and set market prices on the access to the objects of arts. This way, millions of people who are not rich would not be able or willing to spend money on accessing the arts, which would mean that their children and they themselves would lack an opportunity to develop their knowledge and improve quality of lives. Therefore, it is evident that governments should partially subsidize the arts in order to preserve their cultural and social values.

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