Driving home today I heard a report on NPR about the the use of the National Endowment for the Arts share of the stimulus bill swag. The report touted how the NEA had put its guidelines on submitting grants up on its websites only two weeks after the stimulus bill was enacted, and that the NEA approach was focused on preserving jobs in the arts that otherwise would be cut — jobs like assistant concertmaster for a symphony orchestra or marketing director of a museum. This seems like an even sillier use of federal tax dollars that what I discussed in an earlier post — see https://webnerhouse.wordpress.com/2009/03/04/thanks-but/ — about stimulus money being used to hire Columbus police officers for a year.
I can understand spending money to build or repair roads, bridges, rail systems, and port facilities — all of which have an obvious effect on interstate commerce — or on federal buildings, national monuments, the refurbishing of the National Mall, and national parks. All of those forms of stimulus spending would create jobs and have a federal, national focus. Spending on employees of museums, or opera companies, or other local arts organizations, however, has no federal focus, unless you take the view that any preserved job has an impact, however slight, on the national economy. If that is the test, then, why not just give stimulus money to any local manufacturing plant, law firm, or other business that promised to use the money to hire a new worker or to avoid laying off an existing worker? My guess is that most people would not be willing to go so far, because that does not seem like an appropriate use of federal tax dollars. Why should local arts organizations be any different?
I am a big fan of museums and symphony orchestras and have served for years on the board of a local cultural organization, but I simply do not believe that support of local arts and cultural organizations should be a federal concern. If a municipality cannot support a particular arts organization, like a symphony orchestra, that may be a problem for the municipality, or for the director of the symphony who has elect to put on programming that has been unpopular. Such a situation may pose a challenge for the community to adequately support the arts organization, or for the arts organization itself to demonstrate to the community that what the organization offers is interesting, relevant, and worth having. In either case, it should not be a concern for Big Brother in Washington, D.C.