Writing from Miami, Fla.
In an editorial in The Wichita Eagle on August 9, 2005, Randy Schofield wrote, explaining why government should support culture: “Because cultural amenities make Wichita a more desirable place to live, work and visit, and thus help realize Wichita’s quality of life and economic development goals.” We might examine some of the ideas and reasoning behind this statement.
Do cultural amenities make Wichita more desirable? That’s quite a judgment to make. Personally, I enjoy many of the music events held at Wichita State University. I look forward to attending the recitals in the Rie Bloomfield Organ Series, and the piano recitals by Professors Paul Reed, Julie Bees, and Andrew Trechak are the highlights of my cultural season, and, sadly, largely unappreciated by the rest of Wichita. But that’s my taste and preference.
There is a common tendency to judge “highbrow” culture — art museums, the symphony, opera, etc. — as somehow being more valued than other culture. But what people actually do indicates something different. When people spend their own money we find that not many go to the piano recital, the symphony, or the art museum. Instead, they attend pop, rock, or country music concerts, attend sporting events, go to movies, eat at restaurants, rent DVDs, and watch cable or satellite television. I’m not prepared to make a value judgment as to which activities are more desirable. In a free society dedicated to personal liberty, that’s a decision for each person to make individually.
Because there is the tendency to judge highbrow culture as highly valued, governments, as is the case in Wichita, often subsidize it or pay for it outright. Generally, governments don’t subsidize the “lowbrow” culture events that I listed above. So why does highbrow culture require a subsidy? There can be only one reason why: the public, as a whole, does not place as much value on this culture as it costs to produce it. There is simply no way to conclude otherwise.
Consider the movie industry. It, to my knowledge, does not receive government subsidies. Yet, it is able to make a profit most of the time, even though it faces fierce competition from many other ways people can spend their leisure dollars. The movie industry has also faced many challenges arising from new technologies: television, videocassette recorders, and cable television come to mind. How has this industry survived? By focusing on the customer, by determining what people are willing to spend their money on, and by producing products that people value enough to buy. Since the movie industry does not receive government subsidies, it has to do this. It has to meet customer needs and desires and do so efficiently. Otherwise, it starts to lose money. These losses are a signal to management that they aren’t satisfying customers, or not running their business efficiently. They have to change something, or they cease to exist.
When an organization receives government funding, however, it is isolated from the marketplace and its customers. If the organization doesn’t generate enough revenue to cover its costs, it simply asks the taxpayer to pay the difference and it goes on to the next year. The vital imperative to change, to improve, to serve the customer, it doesn’t exist. That’s exactly what is happening with Exploration Place. It has operated at a loss for four years. By accounts, the museum’s exhibits are tired. In the face of mounting losses, they weren’t able to change in ways that the public valued. Yet, the Sedgwick County Commission has given it funding to stay open for a little while longer, and the museum is asking for $2.8 million per year.
Some might say that it doesn’t really matter much if a government gives a little money to a highbrow cultural program. But consider from where the government gets the money. It has to tax people, and that leaves people — not by their own choice — with less money to do the things they really want to do. That makes our city, as a whole, poorer than it would be otherwise, as people aren’t able to spend their money on the things they value most. The government, instead, tells us that we have made the wrong choices, and they are going to correct our poor judgment.
The way to determine what the people of Wichita truly value is to price things at their true cost. People, by freely choosing how they spend their money, will tell us what they value.
In his editorial, Mr. Schofield also said: “The city needs a fair, objective way to evaluate cultural programs and award funding.” I submit that it is not fair to ask one group of people to pay for the leisure activities of another group, no matter how much we value those activities. This is what happens when the city spends tax money on culture. For the evaluation as to which programs are worthy, a free market will tell us that. People will vote, using the votes they really value — their own personal dollars — and decide which programs are valued. When governments or commissions spend taxpayer money, they don’t have to consider value.
“It’s a good first step to bringing some discipline to the arts funding process.” The free marketplace of ideas where true costs are charged provides all the discipline required. How can we expect politicians and arts commission members to exhibit discipline when they aren’t spending their own money?
“No, government can’t support every cultural arts organization.” Finally, a statement from Mr. Schofield that I can agree with!
“But it can help protect Wichita’s cultural investment by providing a dependable source of funds for proven programs and clear oversight and accountability for taxpayers.” There are no “proven” programs as long as they accept government funds, especially when they know the source of funds is dependable. That dependable source of funds allows them to ignore the market and their customers. The way to prove a program’s worth is to price it so that it pays for its entire cost of production. Then, see if people are willing to buy.
Would there be any arts and culture in Wichita if government stopped funding cultural programs? I don’t know, but I imagine there will be. It might turn out that the culture we would have would be better than what we have now, because the operators of cultural programs would have to produce what people want badly enough to pay full freight for. We don’t really know. But we do know that the alternative is worse. It’s more government and more commissions making decisions for us, deciding what we should do with our own money and time.