This week the National Center for Arts Research at Southern Methodist University released a new study to examine claims by Republican lawmakers that the National Endowment for the Arts is disproportionately funding programs enjoyed by wealthy Americans. Paul Ryan’s House Budget Committee, in its proposed budget for 2014, asserted that the NEA funds programs that are “generally enjoyed by people of higher income levels, making them a wealth transfer from poorer to wealthier.” In its summary of findings this new study states that “the idea that the NEA derives its funds from poorer Americans is dubious,” but found the claim that the NEA’s activities were generally enjoyed by people with higher incomes was “worthy of exploration.”
Explore they did – sort of. The study does nothing to refute Republican claims that NEA grants benefit the wealthy, but the very existence of the study shows something more important. Unlike prior conservative objections to the NEA based on offensive material, this new, more serious objection has legs.
The non-profit arts community has taken notice of this new challenge. They understand it is essential to them, and to their continued existence, that Paul Ryan be wrong about the allocation of federal arts dollars.
Michael Rushkin, at Arts Journal does a good of job of refuting what he calls the “ecological fallacy” of the study. Basically the authors looked at the levels of poverty and wealth of the communities in which NEA funded programs exist and found that “NEA funding of the arts is remarkably impartial to community wealth characteristics.” In other words, NEA dollars go to organizations in areas with diverse economic demographics. As Rushikin points out though, “one cannot take figures for aggregate arts attendance, and community income distribution, and make any inference about who are the individuals that attend the arts.” He is exactly right. In New York City for example, the poverty rate is about 20%, but that doesn’t mean that 20% of the people tucking into shows at major NEA funded venues live below the poverty line.
In major cities all over the country there are palaces of culture mere blocks from housing projects. But high ticket prices and programming geared toward the highest educated all too often serve as a fence, separating the institutions from their environments. The mere presence of a cultural institution in a person’s backyard is of no benefit to them if it is not geared toward them and they can’t afford it.
I contacted the Zannie Voss, the director of the study, to ask if it left open the possibility that even in economically diverse communities NEA funded programming is primarily enjoyed by the wealthier inhabitants. She replied that “as a researcher, I leave open all possibilities (particularly those that are based on a deep dive into the socio-demographic characteristics of the actual, individual arts attenders per organization!)” She then went on to explain that the study had spatially adjusted community data for each organization receiving NEA funds. And that the authors “expect” that those who live closest to the organization are most likely to attend it. Whatever one makes of that expectation, the study’s data clearly does not support a claim that the actual attendees represent an economic cross section of these communities.
But try telling that to the New York Times. In a triumphant headline the Grey Lady declared this week, “N.E.A. Funds Benefit Both Rich and Poor, Study Finds.” This claim would be dubious on its own, but it is followed underneath by a bizarre assertion. Times reporter Patricia Cohen writes, “…they found that arts grants led poorer people to attend an event just as much as those in higher tax brackets.” As we see above, the study absolutely finds no such thing. It is a stunning piece of misinformation from a newspaper that prides itself as the gold standard for journalistic integrity. Even the study’s director goes no farther than calling attendee diversity a possibility or an expectation. And it is a claim that runs contrary to reams of actual, hard audience data.
According to the NEA’s snapshot of a theater attendee, 20 percent of those attending non profit plays made more than 150,000 dollars a year, a group that makes up 5 percent of the overall population. For musicals (which are typically more expensive) the number of attendees who make over 150,000 jumps to 40 percent. The fact that those performances may have occurred in the neighborhood of the poor and middle class really doesn’t matter. In fact, in a recent study Clayton Lord showed that in the San Francisco area, the demographics of theatergoers (wealthy and white) remained unchanged regardless of the demographics of the county in which the play takes place. That finding directly undermines the claim that diverse geography equals diverse attendance.
Yes, Arts Money Goes To The Rich
The fact is, the House Republicans are right. As I have pointed out in these pages before, millions of tax payer dollars are going to support the cultural lives of the wealthy, and everybody knows it. This new study and the New York Times’ disingenuous interpretation of it do nothing to change the facts. What we do learn from both the study and the misreporting on it is that the non profit arts community and its champions are more interested in pretending the problem doesn’t exist than in solving it. We also learn that this new attack on the NEA is working, and it has them nervous. After all, nobody ever funded a study to prove that Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs are not offensive.
It is vital that those who favor reform in this arena continue to shine a light on this issue and work for ways to fix it. There are potential improvements that can be made short of doing away with the NEA altogether. A cap on ticket prices for NEA funded events, for example, seems a fair balance. While the National Center for Arts Research might think its dubious that the NEA derives its funds from poorer Americans, there are plenty of middle class Americans who pay a lot of taxes and cannot afford to attend NEA funded events. A pair of tickets to a mainstage production at the NEA funded Atlantic Theater Company in New York costs $130. Two seats to see Baryshnikov in “Man in a Case” at Berkeley Rep in San Francisco costs $230. If people want to drop that kind of cash to see a play, that’s great. But don’t ask taxpayers who can’t afford it to chip in. Or in other words, do not derive your funding from people too poor to go to the show.
Another fairer approach would be to redirect NEA funding away from professional arts productions to arts education and community outreach. This would help to create the new diverse audiences that everybody claims to want. It would also aid states and localities which are struggling to maintain arts education in the schools. We should let the free market sort out productions that people are willing to pay through the nose for.
Lawmakers must be armed with facts, not wishful studies and deceptive headlines. There is a real issue of fairness that Republicans have rightly latched onto. But the problem goes deeper than that. It goes to the core mission of the NEA, and of overall government spending on the arts. The real tragedy here is not that rich people are being given unfair advantages, that’s nothing new. The tragedy is that the needs of the poor and middle class are not being met.
There was a time in this country, before the non profit takeover of art, when poets and painters and playwrights graced the cover of Time magazine. When artists succeeded through a broad appeal that truly did cross class boundaries. If the NEA can be reformed to become that bridge between all Americans and their culture, then it can play an important role. If not it must be done away with. Not just because it is unfair, but because it is bad for American Art.