A Sense of Entitlement in the DC Arts Community

The bill keeping the federal government open through the remainder of the 2011 fiscal year slashed nearly 70 percent from the National Capital Arts and Cultural Affairs’ grants, a tiny program that supports the District’s cultural scene in a big way. As Washington City Paper reported last week, the cuts will have a miniscule impact on some of the city’s biggest arts organizations—but a devastating effect on its tinier ones.

-Washington City Paper, “Why Cuts to National Capital Arts Grants Are Disastrous for Small D.C. Arts Groups

The article quoted above is written in a traditional new story format, meaning it advances no argument explicitly. As with all stories in this format, an argument is nevertheless quite easy to spot.

First, the spending cuts are causing suffering among the little guys in DC’s arts community.

The Kennedy Center received an NCACA grant last year of $650,000—the largest in raw dollar terms, but barely a sliver of its operating income of $94 million.

Then there are groups like Dance Place, which took in just a hair over $1.1 million last year. The Brookland studio is the smallest and newest NCACA beneficiary. The $290,779 it received was the least doled out by the federal program but accounted for a full quarter of its budget. For a group like Dance Place, the federal grant quite literally keeps the lights on, pays the rent, and hires performers and instructors to fill the calendar.

Even a cold-blooded, heartless libertarian such as myself doesn’t enjoy it when people are put out of business because their government funding is yanked. Still, the same can be said for many other situations where the transition is unpleasant but necessary or legitimate. For instance, the fact that word processors and printers have dramatically reduced the employment in typewriter production does not make me dislike word processors or printers.

Now writer Benjamin Freed could just be telling a straightforward empathy piece for the plight of these small arts groups, but I don’t think so. Through the quotes from people at these groups, an argument is brought forward.

“I think the thinking is, ‘That’s OK, no free art’,” she says. “It’s not just about art. It’s about jobs and cultural programs and keeping teenagers off the street and keeping them employed.”

Further down:

“This is just a terrible time for the city to be losing $7 million that goes to arts organizations and from there into the city’s economy,” Epstein says. “They’re the economic engines that revitalize neighborhoods. They pay vendors and salaries. The nation’s capital should be a shining light where the country showcases its arts and cultural life. This cut is going to diminish that.”

Here we are presented with a defense of spending on the arts–it is good for the economy.

This is disingenuous–you don’t have to spend on the arts to spend on DC. This is an argument against spending cuts overall, not spending cuts in the arts.  I don’t want to tackle the question of federal spending on DC in general–that’s an entirely separate question. The question is why tax money should be spent on the arts specifically.

As you will no doubt be shocked to learn, I am against it. I don’t see why any particular arts program deserves to get any more money than what people are willing to give them voluntarily.

Moreover, comments like this get my blood boiling:

Studio Theatre’s retired founder, Joy Zinoman, was more blunt in her criticism of the federal budget process and angry the slashing of NCACA grants wasn’t noticed sooner. “What [this] will do to the cultural life in Washington is a criminal act,” she said.

Two things bother me about this.

First, the sense of entitlement that people like Zinoman have is unbecoming. Why should citizens in California, New York, Texas, and the rest of the country have to pay for arts programs that nearly all of them will probably never see? Why does Zinoman think that Studio is owed their fellow citizens’ money?

Second, the implication that DC’s “cultural life” needs these subsidies. There are plenty of artists, writers, performers, and creative individuals of every stripe living in the District. Most of them can’t make a living doing what they love but they are still doing it; they are still participating in and contributing to the District’s cultural life. This is how it is in every city, how it would be with or without subsidies.

Moreover, these subsidies always go to a certain category of “cultural life”. I submit that you are unlikely to hear Zinoman calling for subsidizing romance novel writing, or producing soap operas, in the District. That is because there are already big, healthy markets for genre fiction and television dramas of many stripes. The natural market position for the kind of art that the Studio Theatre or Dance Place produces is much smaller than some people are happy with, and so they demand that taxpayers augment them.

When funding for the arts cannot be obtained in the market, they ought to be obtained in civil society or not at all.


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