FEDERAL funding for the arts has long been controversial. President Trump’s recent proposal to abolish the National Endowment for the Arts is yet another round in this long-running ideological fight. Budgets are always tight, after all, and the arts can seem suspect. “The NEA Is Welfare for Cultural Elitists,” the conservative Heritage Foundation published in a report 20 years ago, and its view hasn’t changed since then.
But if arts funding is simply welfare, why are so many places in both red and blue states going to creative lengths to keep the money flowing?
Consider the following sources of revenue from states, counties, and cities:
■ state income tax check-offs for the arts in California, Kansas, and Virginia
■ hotel-motel occupancy taxes in New Jersey, Ohio, and Texas
■ gaming revenues in Colorado, Iowa, and West Virginia
■ hunting and fishing fees in Arkansas
■ a tourism tax in South Dakota
■ annual corporate filing fees in Arizona
■ a cigarette tax in Cuyahoga County, Ohio
■ a sales tax in Minnesota, Denver, and Salt Lake City
■ a rental car tax in Mecklenburg County, N.C.
■ a direct arts tax in Portland, Ore.
■ a special arts and entertainment district tax incentives in cities in Maryland and Rhode Island
■ custom arts license plates in California, Kansas, and Tennessee
■ the option to pay one’s estate tax with works of art in Maine
The hard truth is: The kind of vibrant arts scene that cities and states are so eager to cultivate always requires support from somewhere. Successful artists are always diligent about seeking private funds; beyond what they earn from selling their work, they teach lessons, work second jobs, and seek grants from philanthropists.
If communities want a richer arts environment than what those individual efforts support, they need to help artists secure predictable streams of money.
Back in the 1970s, the elected officials in Tampa, Fla., and Huntsville, Ala., devised a way of turning vice into good deeds. Every few months, it was decided, the day’s proceeds from Tampa’s well-attended dog- and horse-racing tracks would go toward the city’s arts and to some other charities. In Huntsville, 10 percent of the city’s liquor tax was directed in that same direction. It was politically and economically easier to let the citizenry (and tourists) pay directly for cultural services, if somewhat indirectly.
Kansas and Massachusetts both pay for the arts through lottery revenues. About $200,000 went to the Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission in 2014. In Massachusetts, the lottery funds $14 million of the $16 million budget of the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Commonwealth’s principal funding agency for the arts. (The National Endowment for the Arts provides another $915,000, with some other state and private sources making up the rest.) So next time you stop by a convenience store and see someone buying a state lottery ticket, realize that that purchase also underwrites a ticket to the philharmonic.
How we fund the arts matters. A portion of San Francisco’s 14 percent hotel-motel occupancy tax funds the city’s Grants for the Arts program to the tune of $11.3 million in fiscal 2017-18, is “a highly equitable form of arts support in that it returns to the arts money that came to the city through the motels and hotels in the form of tourism,” according to Kary Schulman, director of Grants for the Arts. Presumably, some of those tourists came to San Francisco for arts and cultural activities. The tourism tax in South Dakota, which provides the entire funding for the state’s arts agency budget, also has a similar relevance.
It isn’t clear that these revenue sources have filled the gap as government spending on the arts has declined over the years. The National Assembly of State Arts Agencies reported that in fiscal 2017, the aggregate arts agency budgets of the nation’s 50 states and territories rose 2.6 percent to $362 million over the previous year, although still well below the fiscal 2001 aggregate of $450 million, which was the all-time high.
At a more basic level though, we might ask: Why do we — or should we — support the nonprofit sector of the arts world through public assistance? Perhaps, it is just welfare for cultural elitists, or maybe the arts offer an intangible public good. To my thinking, governments are created to maintain and enhance our quality of life. That’s the basis on which they should be judged. And, increasingly, governments across the country are seeing the benefits of funding more than just roads and bridges — even if Congress has other priorities.Daniel Grant is the author of “The Business of Being an Artist.”