May 2014
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Executive Director's Column
Do Not Privatize Federal Cultural Agencies
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Executive Director's Column
Do Not Privatize Federal Cultural Agencies
Jonathan Katz

The House Budget Committee, chaired by Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI), issued its fiscal year 2015 budget resolution entitled "The Path to Prosperity" earlier this April. It contains the following language:

Encourage Private Funding for Cultural Agencies.
Federal subsidies for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting can no longer be justified. The activities and content funded by these agencies go beyond the core mission of the federal government. These agencies can raise funds from private-sector patrons, which will also free them from any risk of political interference.

NASAA is advised that the defunding of agencies proposed in this resolution is unlikely to be adopted by the House Appropriations Committee. Nevertheless, each of the four assertions arguing for such a major change in federal policy calls for a reasoned, respectful response.

The Arts and Humanities Benefit the Public

Many people—surveys suggest most people—would agree that the range of public benefits that participation in the arts and humanities provides, and that public funding enhances, is sufficient to justify the federal investment in the agencies cited.

  • Why Should Government Support the Arts? is a frequently downloaded NASAA policy brief. It may be consulted for both policy analysis and factual evidence that address the returns on investment resulting from public support of the arts. The brief's "What the Research Says" feature documents economic, educational and work-force, health, and civic benefits deriving from investment in the arts.
  • Arguments for the Value of the Humanities, an outline on the National Humanities Alliance (NHA) website, expands on the public benefits that return on investment in the humanities. These include access to learning essential skills and knowledge, innovation and economic competitiveness, productive global engagement, and strengthened civic knowledge and practice.
  • State Humanities Councils: An Investment in America's Communities, available from the Federation of State Humanities Councils, complements the NHA piece by further explaining how National Endowment for the Humanities dollars invested at the state level are leveraged many times over to preserve local history and cultural heritage, boost local economies, support veterans, reach diverse populations, serve rural residents, spur lifelong learning and enhance national security.

There is ample evidence that the arts and humanities offer public benefits that justify return on investment in educational, economic and civic terms. The House budget resolution, however, asserts that investment in the agencies providing these benefits is not part of the core mission of the federal government. That assertion should and can be addressed in its own terms.

The Arts and Humanities Are at the Core of Government

The activities of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) are central to the core mission of the federal government. America's founders, who saw themselves first and foremost as representatives of the people (as opposed to the Crown or any level of government), stated the following purpose for the Constitution itself:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence [sic], promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The founders clearly intended for the Constitution to be interpreted over time to empower the functions of government that could contribute to progress toward a society with these ideal characteristics. They demonstrated both courage and faith in bestowing such latitude of purpose on future representatives of the people—in one breath linking justice, domestic tranquility, defense, general welfare and liberty itself as the goals of government. Consistent with that sense of latitude, they empowered Congress in the very first article of the Constitution to secure copyright for the writings and discoveries of authors and inventors. And to offset the broad latitude with which they empowered Congress and the two other branches of the federal government, they passed the Bill of Rights, including, in the 10th Amendment, the assurance that "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."

The Arts and Humanities Are Central to Public Education

As the history of American public policy has unfolded, determining the educational curriculum has been interpreted as one of those powers reserved to the states. Distinct among developed nations, the United States has not officially adopted national curriculum standards. The federal government has not exercised authority to ensure that you or your children will ever read the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, "The Star Spangled Banner," "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" or a presidential ballot. However, Congress has consistently provided for the access and affordability of those aspects of education that its members perceive to benefit the people of this country by contributing to justice and equity, national defense, a strong economy, and, yes, the general welfare and liberty.

In this federal tradition stand the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890, which created the land-grant university system; the high school Vocational Education Acts of 1917 and 1946; the G.I. Bill, credited with subsidizing the college education of 8 million World War II veterans; and Pell grants, which may be applied by students at 5,400 participating institutions of higher education. Numerous judiciary decisions grounded in the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Clause led to and have enforced the federal guarantee of a "Free Appropriate Public Education" to every student in every state. The Brown vs. Board of Education decision, intended to provide racial equity in access to an appropriate education, and the Title I program in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, designed to support learning in economically disadvantaged schools nationwide, share this premise.

It is quite clear that Congress authorized the NEA and NEH in this mainstream tradition of support for the access of the people to education broadly conceived. Here is the language from the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1965 that defines "access to the arts and humanities" as "a form of education," the provision of which is "necessary and appropriate for the federal government":

DECLARATION OF FINDINGS AND PURPOSES

The Congress finds and declares the following:

(1) The arts and the humanities belong to all the people of the United States.

(2) The encouragement and support of national progress and scholarship in the humanities and the arts, while primarily a matter for private and local initiative, are also appropriate matters of concern to the Federal Government.

(3) An advanced civilization must not limit its efforts to science and technology alone, but must give full value and support to the other great branches of scholarly and cultural activity in order to achieve a better understanding of the past, a better analysis of the present, and a better view of the future.

(4) Democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens. It must therefore foster and support a form of education, and access to the arts and the humanities, designed to make people of all backgrounds and wherever located masters of their technology and not its unthinking servants.

(5) It is necessary and appropriate for the Federal Government to complement, assist, and add to programs for the advancement of the humanities and the arts by local, State, regional, and private agencies and their organizations.

In this language, it is easy to see that Congress created the NEA and NEH for the same reasons and to accomplish the same goals that the founders created the federal government and Congress itself. The Cold War context for this enabling legislation and the similarity of that context with world affairs today make the following additional declarations linking defense, the economy, the general welfare and liberty sound current and timely:

(7) The practice of art and the study of the humanities require constant dedication and devotion. While no government can call a great artist or scholar into existence, it is necessary and appropriate for the Federal Government to help create and sustain not only a climate encouraging freedom of thought, imagination, and inquiry but also the material conditions facilitating the release of this creative talent.

(8) The world leadership which has come to the United States cannot rest solely upon superior power, wealth, and technology, but must be solidly founded upon worldwide respect and admiration for the Nation's high qualities as a leader in the realm of ideas and of the spirit.

(9) Americans should receive in school, background and preparation in the arts and humanities to enable them to recognize and appreciate the aesthetic dimensions of our lives, the diversity of excellence that comprises our cultural heritage, and artistic and scholarly expression.

Democracy in the United States evolves in a complex conversation among people in their capacities as lawmakers, educators, consumers, corporate leaders, parents, scientists, artists, scholars and many other roles. In a nation so dedicated to the belief that government should serve the people, James Madison's observation that "Education is the true foundation of civil liberties" speaks to the need of the people to be educated in the skills and knowledge needed to express their opinions, listen to others, draw upon relevant information and make wise decisions. These competencies contribute to, but have a dimension of importance beyond, college and career preparation. They include, obviously, the arts and the humanities. Fortunately, in the United States, support for the lifelong learning experiences that constitute the arts and humanities is a core mission of the federal government.

Public Support for the Arts and Humanities Encourages and Enhances Private Support

The notion that removing federal subsidy for the public benefits provided by the arts and humanities agencies would result in private support materializing to supply those benefits is without evidence. What has been thoroughly demonstrated is the ability of the federal arts and humanities agencies to stimulate private support through the matching principle in their grant making. This principle engages the uniquely American engine of volunteerism and charitable giving in the not-for-profit sector to leverage the resources that produce public benefits.

Congress further leveraged the benefits of federal support by fostering the creation of state arts and humanities agencies and mandating a portion of the NEA and NEH budgets to empower them. In the humanities, the state councils and their staffs have enriched local civic life in the United States by cultivating informed dialogue among scholars, lawmakers and citizens. In a digital age when suspect data can be rapidly and widely distributed, authoritatively informed discussion of issues has become especially valuable. State legislatures now invest hundreds of millions of dollars annually in their arts agencies to strengthen their states' creative work force and industries, build travel and tourism, provide a well-rounded education, and enrich life in their communities. The federal NEA and NEH funds extend the capacities of these state arts agencies and humanities councils, enabling them to surmount the ups and downs of local tax revenues, to reach their poorer and more isolated constituents, and to lay the foundation for local arts agencies and ongoing community forums.

A key federal requirement for state funds is a comprehensive public planning process—something not necessarily inherent in privatization schemes. Review of these planning processes by panels composed of leaders in their fields and lay citizens provides an alternative to the inequities, special interests and self-serving agendas to which privatization schemes are vulnerable.

Privatization and Political Interference

The claim that privatizing participation in the arts and humanities will free them from any risk of political interference dissolves upon scrutiny. Doesn't it seem that political interference in the arts and humanities becomes much more likely—and much more likely to be successful—in a country where the people's broad participation in the arts and humanities as a kind of education is not encouraged by government? Having experienced almost 50 years of the NEA, NEH and CPB, would our nation ever again be likely to tolerate a House Un-American Activities Committee sifting through not only the political content of theater and writing projects, but also the political content of the private film industry?

We must also assess the underlying idea that it would be a good thing to take debate about the value of a work of scholarship or art out of the civic marketplace and restrict that debate to the commercial marketplace. Yes, from time to time a public debate or "controversy" will emerge on whether a particular work of scholarship or art is worthy of public support. The society envisioned by Congress in the NEA and NEH enabling legislation is one that would "honor and preserve its multicultural artistic heritage as well as support new ideas." A work that is part of a program that gets some public funding may be in a style or form unfamiliar to an audience, its content or message may be perceived as disagreeable to an audience, the interpretation that is supposed to bridge these gaps may be inadequate, or its sensationalism may not be justified by its quality. Because public funding is involved, however, this debate goes to broadly engaged discussion of what about participating in the arts and humanities is a public good, what the public benefits are, and what policies best reflect what the people want from their government in the way of arts and humanities participation that they cannot get from their individual and commercial decisions alone. The discussion expands from the individual works to how decisions are made on behalf of the people, to dialogue about shared beliefs and the protection of minority viewpoints, to the concept of e pluribus unum itself and the defining values of American democracy.

Continue Public Funding of the Arts and Humanities

The centrality of support for the arts and humanities to the core mission of the federal government, and the highly leveraged return on that investment in terms of public benefits, argue strongly for continued funding of the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Just as elected officials at the state level with very varied political orientations find compelling reasons and broad-based constituent support in favor of public funding for their arts agencies, humanities councils and public media, the will of Congress is likely to center along a path for the federal cultural agencies that serves the people by truly encouraging both public and private investment in their arts and humanities.

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