On the Money: New Music Funding in the United States

“God help the government that meddles with art,” said Lord Melbourne, the British Prime Minister of the 1830s. England provided the chief models for United States government, laws, and society. When the federal government did commission art works–like John Trumbull‘s four large paintings (1, 2, 3, 4) for the Capitol rotunda (for $32,000 in 1817)–the works caused an uproar over both quality and expense that only confirmed the future separation of art and state.

But the Constitution, with its explicit embrace of intellectual property rights, and the Founding Fathers, with their Enlightenment views on the arts as a benefit to society, provide ample framework for the sizable government support for the arts that has grown up in the 20th century. John Quincy Adams wrote in favor of “laws promoting the cultivation and encouragement of the mechanical and elegant arts, and the advancement of literature,” and that failure in this regard would amount to “treachery of the most sacred of all trusts.”

Indeed, government at all levels has done John Quincy proud by joining the great partnership of support to music and the arts.

With the rise of private philanthropy in the late 19th century, personal art collections devolved into public museums; immigrant Germans’ musical industry created orchestras; and both attracted municipal support, the first stirrings of ongoing government participation.

When the federal government finally jumped, it was with both feet. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) provided direct employment to musicians, writers, and painters, along with intellectual and manual laborers of all kinds, during the years of the Great Depression. According to Milton C. Cummings, Jr., in Public Money and the Muse (edited by Stephen Benedict), a total of 40,000 artists were employed between 1935 and the program’s end in 1943. Again, controversy dogged the output, as many artists expressed pro-Union or socialist views, most famously in Marc Blitzstein‘s opera The Cradle Will Rock. Investigations, political pressure, and finally the stringencies of a world war together made continuation of the WPA impossible.

Following World War II, the atmosphere remained negative toward government involvement in the arts, with McCarthyism probing Communist sympathies on the one hand, and may artists opposing a “Ministry of Culture,” with the control that implies, on the other hand. The one area that did begin to develop was international cultural exchange, an increasing use of American culture as a tool of diplomacy. In the realm of new music, jazz artists like Dizzy Gillespie found favor and support in this effort, but not classical composers.

The roots of the National Endowment for the Arts appear by 1959, when some members of Congress overcame the quandary of how the government could choose artists to support, with a model of grantmaking based on peer review. In 1961 President Kennedy engaged the New York theater producer Roger Stevens to work on a national cultural center–ultimately The John F. Kennedy Center in Washington DC). In 1962, August Heckscher became the President’s first special consultant on the arts. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. on the White House staff kept pressure on Kennedy and then President Johnson to form a federal agency for the arts. Finally in 1965 Congress passed legislation creating the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities with its two endowments: for the Arts and for the Humanities. Combining the two assured an enormous constituency of universities and publishers along with the museums and orchestras. The National Endowment for the Arts was launched with a budget of $8 million.

A far-sighted amendment to that initial legislation mandated that 20% of the NEA’s funds should go directly to those states that would form arts agencies of their own. Within two years, all 50 states had formed state arts councils with state funding to match the federal allotment. In 1986, the state arts councils surpassed the NEA in aggregate budget; today the states allocate $396 million compared to the NEA’s $99 million.

State arts councils soon began decentralization drives of their own, seeking to stimulate and support local arts councils. Many hundreds of these now exist in urban and rural areas alike, playing a variety of roles from funding agency to arts presenter. (They were formerly represented by the National Assembly of Local Arts Agencies; this organization merged with the American Arts Alliance, an advocacy organization, to form Americans for the Arts.) Fifty of the largest local arts councils, allied as the United States Urban Arts Federation, have a combine 2000 budget of $253 million. Beyond this figure, it is difficult to suggest the exact scale of local government and local arts council contributions to the arts, but it certainly tops $1 billion.

And the federal government is supportive in other ways. The tax deduction for charitable contributions to the arts alone means at least $2 billion per year in foregone revenue. Postal subsidies to nonprofit organizations help new music as much as any art form. And those international exchanges, commissions for public art, and other programs still infiltrate many branches of government. The NEA provides a guide to such opportunities. As well, the federally funded Corporation for Public Broadcasting, by supporting public radio, makes possible the broadcast of new music that can be found today.

From On the Money: New Music Funding in the United States
by Theodore Wiprud
© 2000 NewMusicBox