Because arts are important, government funding should be avoided

Yesterday’s forum of Wichita City Council and mayoral candidates that focused on the arts found broad agreement among candidates and incumbents for continued funding of the arts by Wichita city government, according to Wichita Eagle reporting.

The city has a dedicated one mill property tax levy dedicated to arts funding, and it generates about $3 million per year. Then a commission decides how to distribute the funds. This taxation and spending is said to be good for Wichita’s economy. But every special interest group produces economic impact studies that show that government spending on their projects has a magical “multiplier” effect that produces great amounts of wealth and prosperity. These are so commonly produced that they are meaningless. Every group that seeks public funds produces them.

But besides this factor, there are very important reasons to keep government away from art. Lawrence W. Reed wrote in What’s Wrong with Government Funding of the Arts? of the harm of turning over responsibility to the government for things we value and find worthwhile:

I can think of an endless list of desirable, enriching things in life, of which very few carry an automatic tag that says, “Must be provided by taxes and politicians.” Such things include good books, nice lawns, nutritious food, and smiling faces. A rich culture consists, as you know, of so many good things that have nothing to do with government, and thank God they don’t. We should seek to nurture those things privately and voluntarily because “private” and “voluntary” are key indicators that people are awake to them and believe in them. The surest way I know to sap the vitality of almost any worthwhile endeavor is to send a message that says, “You can slack off of that; the government will now do it.” That sort of “flight from responsibility,” frankly, is at the source of many societal ills today: many people don’t take care of their parents in their old age because a federal program will do it; others have abandoned their children because until recent welfare reforms, they’d get a bigger check if they did.

The boosters of government arts funding in Kansas make the case that arts are important. Therefore, they say, government must be involved.

But actually, the opposite is true. The more important to our culture we believe the arts to be, the stronger the case for getting government out of its funding. Here’s why. In a statement opposing the elimination of the Kansas Arts Commission, executive director Llewellyn Crain explained that “The Kansas Arts Commission provides valuable seed money that leverages private funds …”

This “seed money” effect is precisely why government should not be funding arts. David Boaz explains:

Defenders of arts funding seem blithely unaware of this danger when they praise the role of the national endowments as an imprimatur or seal of approval on artists and arts groups. Jane Alexander says, “The Federal role is small but very vital. We are a stimulus for leveraging state, local and private money. We are a linchpin for the puzzle of arts funding, a remarkably efficient way of stimulating private money.” Drama critic Robert Brustein asks, “How could the [National Endowment for the Arts] be ‘privatized’ and still retain its purpose as a funding agency functioning as a stamp of approval for deserving art?” … I suggest that that is just the kind of power no government in a free society should have.

We give up a lot when we turn over this power to government bureaucrats and arts commission cronies.

Facing an intense lobbying effort by those seeking taxpayer funds for their special interests, the Kansas Senate last week overturned Governor Sam Brownback‘s order eliminating the Kansas Arts Commission. The KAC must still be appropriated funds if it is to survive, and if appropriated, it faces a potential line item veto by the governor.

1 Comment

  • Pam Porvaznik -

    I’m on the other side of this one, Bob. We live in a society that is quickly losing its culture and will to do the right thing. Having been on the Friends of the Wichtia Art Museum for 12 years, I see first-hand how low on the totem pole “art” is. I was educated in another era. I had fabulous art and art history courses at girls’ school. I got to study art for a year in Paris and Rome. Today, the arts have taken a back seat to sports in schools. Probably most of today’s parents could care less about nurturing that side of their children’s education. I say keep government money in the mix…at least for now.

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