Meanwhile, back at the NEA in Washington, a decision has been made on just how to obey last fall’s congressional mandate to transfer some twelve million dollars of annual program funds from federal to state auspices. This innocent-sounding provision, removing a further 15 percent of the NEA’s funds from its grant-making discretion (20 percent already go to the states), is perhaps the most substantive change wrought by all the scandals in the last two years about art subsidies for obscene and sacrilegious purposes.

This shift of power from the NEA to state arts councils was the legislative brainchild of Representative E. Thomas Coleman (R.-Missouri), and doubtless was originally inspired by the politically powerful National Association of State Arts Agencies, the states’ chief lobby in these matters. In recent years, the relation in arts funding between the federal government and the states has become increasingly marked by political rivalry and bureaucratic rancor. The matter can be put simply: subsidizing the arts has become too good a thing, for too many people, to avert constant battling over the division of the spoils.

The name of the game, of course, is spreading the money around to the maximum number of recipients. It is significant that the NEA has managed to free by far the largest part of the funds it will now hand over to the states by making across-the-board reductions of grant amounts; the agency has once again avoided facing up to eliminating some recipients and some programs so that others, better qualified, might be held harmless. Music grantees will be cut by nearly two million dollars, as will museums. But the number of grants will remain constant. The NEA has long known that in numbers is safety; cutting everyone equally makes for the largest amount of political pressure on Congress to increase NEA appropriations.

It must be said as well that Congress ensured that the new money for the states would be apportioned not simply according to each state’s level of activity or even of public support; almost half the funds will be spent on minimum grants of ninety thousand dollars to each state, regardless of size, population, or involvement with the arts. The resulting windfall for the smaller states, even though they may have little of artistic distinction going on in them, will be proportionately great, a fact that will be proudly noted during the next elections for the U.S. Congress.

What will the states use the new money for? Here the picture is grim: the New York Times’s William H. Honan has reported that while Tennessee will use the funds for medium-sized and large institutions, New York will spend the money “to avoid laying off employees in folk arts programs and replace cuts in the agency’s travel budget“; Idaho will “direct the money chiefly to local arts councils throughout the state, which will use it for presenting local and national arts groups.” It is also highly likely that a significant part of the new money will find its way to what might be called the neighborhood avant-garde, that politically and socially squeaky wheel that intelligent officials now find it prudent to grease.

One thing is certain. Increased funding to the states will in no way make up the losses quality institutions will suffer because of cuts on the federal level. And so it is plain that this new legislative provision, so widely trumpeted as returning power to the people, is nothing more than a cynical political ploy to preserve the potential constituency for public arts support while at the same time enabling our elected representatives to claim credit for bringing home the bacon. It is curious indeed that all this has been done as part of a well-earned backlash against the whole notion of public arts support.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 9 Number 6, on page 2
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