(Visual) Notes on Culture
  Optimism for American Arts Funding
The "arts" (here used primarily for works of performance, film, and installation, though also applicable to the more traditional plastic arts) in America are funded by a combination of public and private money. Most of this money is privately controlled. Rich individuals, personal endowments, individual legacy grants (the Kenan Fund, for example), and corporations in search of a beneficial public image all surrender money to impractical cultural expression.

I worked at the John F. Kennedy Center for a brief time, during which I got a first-hand taste of how performances were funded. A budget that covered all aspects of booking, presentation, and payment was drafted before funds were sought from a number of private companies, fellowship competitions, and philanthropic foundations. These performances recuperated part of their losses in ticket sales, but this top-down funding ultimately helped to ensure that the presenting organization remained out of the red. Performing arts institutions that rely booking diverse acts are fragile in that they constantly have to seek funding, often for a year or two in advance of a performance.

Dana Gioia, director of the National Endowment for the Arts - which, though important, has been made an increasingly neutered entity in our times - likes the American model for arts funding. There are some advantages. In theory, there are more ways to get money and more circulating funds overall. Yet with more interests to serve, the act of programming for variety becomes more delicate. Whose bottom line is served? The public, presenting organization, performance underwriters, etc?

Arts are funded through national funds throughout much of the European Union. This happens primarily on the national level, though the general economic conditions for this funding are still dependent on monetary and financial currents on a larger stage. France provides a large amount of state support for artists, filmmakers, and writers...it even has an entity to help bolster and regulate the native tongue! Britain has a number of arts councils, serving a number of constituencies, and boasts what is probably the most adeptly-run film/cultural organization in the west (the BFI). In these nations, the public is implicitly charged with promoting, maintaining, and participating in the forging of a national identity.

The American model does not strongly lend itself to the promotion of national identity...historically, this has been the realm of the private sector. Our national "master narrative" is so rife with gumption, pragmatic philosophy, tales of individual success, and a distrust of civil institutions that it would be a hard-sell to change existing parameters. I am not sure that I am convinced one way or another as to which model - ours' or the European - is preferable, only that American national identity is slightly more fragmented and obscured as a result of widespread indifference on the part of the public.
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