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Simon Saltzman on Funding for the Arts

Governor McGreevey’s proposal to eliminate the New

Jersey State Council on the Arts, thereby cutting $18 million in

grants

to 700 arts groups (and probably incurring an additional loss of $2

million in federal grants) for arts and culture, prompted his

spokeswoman

Ellen Mellody to tell a gathering of arts leaders: "It’s hard

to justify hanging a picture on the wall when you can’t put food on

the table."

What is most troubling about this statement is the notion that anyone

would equate the arts with "putting a picture on the wall."

With all due respect for the governor, who has (according to Mellody)

"been forced to cut programs near and dear to his heart,"

it is possible the he and our legislators are being purposefully and

artfully (no pun intended) duplicitous.

That this drastic proposal has been planned as a justification for

a tax increase would not surprise anyone and frankly is anticipated.

However, in our politicians’ attempt to confront a budget deficit

spiraling out of control, they are also telling us there is no

correlation

between support for art and culture and the basic necessities of life.

The statements I quote, while they may seem to be in one case

misguided

and in the other gratuitous, also suggest what may be at the root

of our state’s, indeed our nation’s, callous and shortsighted reaction

and response to the needs and purposes of our non-profit arts and

cultural institutions.

McGreevey’s draconian proposal implies that there may be more to it

than a simple lack of money. It doesn’t take an analyst to see how

anger, frustration, and power (consider his thwarted attempt to remove

a poet from his appointed post) is more of a motivating force than

is a clear-headed attempt to approach the problem with the active

input and alliance of a committed arts council. Although not consulted

beforehand, the administrators at the New Jersey State Council on

the Arts, and ArtPride New Jersey, an advocacy group, may have helped

provide just the kind of imaginative and dedicated know-how needed

to initiate skilled and equitable solutions to the budget crunch.

Since New Jersey is not the only state to embark on a wholesale

cutting

of arts funding, it might help to understand how and why such a

divided

perception exists between life’s daily necessities and our artistic

and cultural needs. To this end, I spoke with Steven J. Tepper, deputy

director of the Princeton University Center for Arts and Cultural

Policy Studies (CACPS). The center, created in 1994 by Stanley N.

Katz, a Wilson School professor and historian of constitutional law

and of philanthropy, and Paul DiMaggio, sociology professor and

research

director, is dedicated to informing the development and implementation

of policies related to arts and culture.

Tepper specializes in various "culture wars." For his

dissertation

in sociology, he researched conflicts over art and culture in 100

American cities. I asked if his study produced any particularly

notable

result.

"What was revealed," says Tepper, "was that the conflicts

are generally bigger than the particular art or cultural expression

being targeted. Provocative art provokes people. Looking underneath

the art, one can find the lightning rods for deeper anxieties and

tensions within a community. People take out their frustrations on

the arts."

Tepper is currently at work on a book — an extension of his

dissertation

— in which he attempts to understand and explain the conflicts

over art, history, and education in America.

"Working with other colleagues I have been trying to understand

the state of American theater, the extent to which we see innovation

and new plays, where that happens, and why," he says. "We’ve

also been doing a case study of a new law in Chicago that shut down

`rave’ events (the all-night dance parties with electronic music).

The mayor passed a bill that made it a criminal act to be a DJ for

these events. We have since interviewed about 35 people on both sides

of the debate — government officials, police officers, DJs, and

others. We are trying to explain this conflict and what has been the

consequence of the law."

Would Tepper be willing to make a personal statement about Governor

McGreevey’s proposal to slash arts funding in New Jersey? "The

amount of money given to the arts is so insignificant," he replies

emphatically, "that the governor’s proposal has to be considered

as symbolic."

"One could make a political science hypothesis on how this serves

the governor," he continues. "Making the arts the sacrificial

lamb probably makes it easier for him to cut other programs. It makes

it easier for him to say to other groups that their cuts could have

been worse. Used as a symbol, the arts can be seen as important to

the people. The unintended signal he gives is about what we value

as a society and how the arts are not valuable enough to keep even

at a minimal amount."

Although many organizations take a stand on whether

art should continue to be a priority in the face of a budget crisis,

Tepper confirms that the CACPS "steers clear of getting into any

kind of advocacy position. We need to gather more information about

the cultural sector, so that when events like this come about we will

be better prepared to know what the consequences are."

Since the question of the economic impact of the arts is everywhere,

I ask Tepper for his opinion of Stephen Kinzer’s reporting in the

New York Times (February 20). In an examination of major arts funding

cuts in Arizona, Missouri, and New Jersey, "studies conducted

over the last few years have shown that spending on arts programs

produces handsome economic returns, and many state officials have

come to agree that supporting these programs is a wise

investment."

In this vein, in a campaign to restore funding, ArtPride New Jersey

states that the non-profit arts and history are vital "because

they produce a $1.5 billion impact on the economy; employ 17,000

residents;

attract 21 million people to 14,000 events annually; and return over

$90 million in state taxes."

"Right now, despite what other economic impact studies choose

to say," Tepper replies, "we do not have evidence that we

[CACPS] can marshal to say this will be the result."

He makes it clear that CACPS is an advocate solely for research. But

does this research tend, or rather is it designed, to strengthen the

position of those who are advocates for the arts? Is there any area

of research that gives ammunition to the opponents of arts support?

"We hope we pick a research project that will be of interest and

salient to the arts community and policy makers, but we would just

as easily publish things that the arts community would prefer not

to have published," he says. He cites "research that debunks

the economic impact studies. Those studies, although popular and

effective,

are flawed and the information unsubstantiated."

Does Tepper know of any studies that conclude that

America

is actually better off without having any kind of standard

"cultural

policy"?

"Not empirical studies based on data," he says, "but there

are certainly philosophical arguments to that end." He also

explains

why most people are confused and confounded by the various systems

that support art in this country.

"It’s very decentralized and there are a lot of blurry boundaries

between high art and low art," says Tepper. "Non-profits are

often acting more like commercial entities with the reverse also true.

One of the studies the center would like to do is to map out and

explain

how the cultural system works in New Jersey, and how the funding

streams

flow."

"Had we done that two years ago," he continues, "we would

be in better position now to say: With a particular part of the

funding

shut off, who is likely to thrive and who is likely to suffer? If

we knew more about how the arts work in New Jersey, we would have

the data to supply to policy makers who would then have a better idea

of what they were doing."

Tepper’s guess as to the most significant losses for the state’s many

arts organizations:

"Most would have to drop community outreach, community focused

programs, programs for children, and rely on their own earned income.

The performing arts will have to be a lot more conservative and focus

on what gets people into seats and not risk a new play; while the

visual arts are not likely to take a chance on exhibiting a new

artist.

What we will see is a less creative and expansive New Jersey."

In 1999, Tepper responded to a New York Times op-ed piece by Alice

Goldfarb Marquis with a letter in which he wrote: "Marquis argues

that we don’t need a `national policy’ for arts and culture because

they are too diverse and amorphous and because there are plenty of

signs of increasing support for them. But diversity can be, and often

is, the explicit goal of cultural policy. Moreover, we cannot assume

that a laissez-faire approach is the best way to insure variety."

While it is fair to say that the institutions, groups, and individuals

who benefit from the limited largess (excuse the oxymoron) of various

grants and provide an essential need, it is also true that our federal

and state governments have never considered it as part of their

obligation

to encourage the visionaries and artists who continually define for

us what makes life meaningful. Roman Polanski, the director of the

Oscar-nominated "The Pianist," said about his film, "It

was a way to show how the pursuit of art can overcome life’s

horrors…

that music and art help someone go through difficult, sometimes the

greatest, adversities."

Tepper recommends an unusual upcoming lecture on the economics of

happiness by University of Zurich professor Bruno Frey, Thursday,

March 27. Frey’s research has shown that economics is only one part

of a people’s sense of well-being. According to Tepper, Frey’s studies

disclose that in many countries where incomes have gone up, the sense

of well-being has gone down. In short, we concur that we shouldn’t

be confronted with a choice between hanging a painting or putting

food on the table. Both acts are significant and essential.

Princeton University Center for Arts and Cultural Policy

Studies, 429 Robertson Hall, 609-258-5023.

www.princeton.edu/culturalpolicy.

What Can Economists Say About Happiness?, Princeton

University, Robertson Hall. Bruno Frey, University of Zurich.

Thursday, March 27, 4:30 p.m.


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