Charlotte Perkins argues why state-subsidised arts programs are more beneficial to society
The success of the arts should not be left to the destructive cycles of market capitalism or the whims of deep-pocketed donors. The donor-based system, on display most flagrantly in the United States, is necessarily exclusive, not only perpetuating cultural injustices but also weakening the arts as political forms of communication. Government programs to fund the arts robustly should be the norm, constructed in such a way that they are truly representative and inclusive.
Leaving arts funding to private individuals affects the kind of art that can be produced. In a society where wealth is highly concentrated in the hands of a few, arts institutions are often forced to produce the kinds of works that solicit large donations. This practice often means that programming directors don’t feel comfortable taking a chance on contemporary works which may or may not be profitable. In the case of opera, for example, the same works are repeatedly performed, meaning that composers from groups which were historically excluded from the classical music world continue to be shut out from some of the world’s most prestigious stages. This systemic exclusion not only means that the worldview and interests of privileged groups are disproportionately represented onstage, but also that the potential for development within the industry is stunted.
Theatre is an especially political art form, since it tells stories live and in public, and is therefore constantly subject to reinterpretation. During WWII, for example, Laurence Olivier’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s Henry V was useful in keeping British spirits up; Kenneth Brannaugh’s reinterpretation during the Vietnam War of the same work cast a new, skeptical light on violent campaigning. This is by no means a call for an instrumentalist assessment of the value of the arts, but rather to demonstrate the power of the arts to speak to a particular moment. A government that chooses not to fund the arts, therefore, could fairly be accused of attempting to suppress public opinion. By contrast, adequately providing for the arts shows a commitment to supporting a plurality of voices, a condition necessary to the maintenance of a healthy democracy.
Funding the arts is also good diplomatic policy. Scholars increasingly recognize the role arts play in the creation of an outward national image; globally, the arts are an important “soft power” tool, communicating values, histories, and lived experiences to people worldwide. Until the late 20th century, American embassies abroad placed an emphasis on hosting cultural events and building libraries to share American literature—and while such an approach could be viewed as a slippery slope to modern imperialism, it at least represents an awareness of the power of national culture. Even from a purely interest-driven standpoint, therefore, governments should be eager to fund the arts. For more on cultural diplomacy, see here.
This is not a call to adopt a cookie-cutter policy; there’s no single model for successful public arts funding. In France, for example, the system is highly centralized, in keeping with the nation’s history of powerful, Paris-based bureaucracy. Local support for arts projects and practitioners is provided through smaller branches of the Ministry of Culture which report to Paris. Sweden, on the other hand, takes a much more localized approach; in Sweden’s arts policy as in its public policy generally, it’s traditional for many different strata of society to be represented. By incorporating many viewpoints and needs, Sweden is able to support arts which are truly public in the broadest sense of the word. Sweden also fosters folk-art initiatives, in an effort to prevent the arts from becoming elite-dominated and inflexible. For more on this, see Zimmer and Toepler’s in-depth article here.
The disparate examples of France and Sweden demonstrate that public arts funding can—and perhaps must—be tailored to the ethos of the country in question. With this understanding, the US’ approach is perfectly logical; a privatized system is consistent with the country’s history and economic context. However, moments of change, as presented by the global pandemic and the struggle for racial justice, demand reevaluation of outdated practices and institutions. This moment of cultural and economic upheaval is an auspicious time to begin rebuilding funding mechanisms which are unsustainable and unjust.
A privatized, donor-based creative industry fails to unleash the true power of the arts. The cutthroat capitalism which sometimes inspires success in other fields (technology, for example) simply does not work for the arts, since the products of artistic endeavor cannot be consumed in the way that the increasing speed of global exchange demands. Arts are more lasting than the vast majority of consumer goods, and are therefore ill-suited to a mass consumerist society. This market failure and subsequent dependence on private donors means that voices are excluded to the point that structures of injustice are recreated with shocking regularity. By contrast, treating the arts as public goods and providing for them as such allows the fruits of creativity to serve everyone, not only those who can pay. Public arts can act not only as a catalyst for change, but a common reference point for groups of people, creating cohesion, supporting healthy discussion, and uplifting marginalized voices. With such a clear political and ethical imperative, governments have a duty to step up and support the nation’s cultural life.