The Safe Thing Is Not Working

There has been a lot of conversation recently about what to do in light of the Trump Administration’s stated intent to eliminate the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities.

This past weekend Matt Burriesci had a piece on Salon that took a contrarian stance to the effort to bring pressure on Congress to preserve federal funding for arts and culture.

In Burriesci’s view arguing the economic value of the arts in order to get funding for the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities has failed. He admits he has been complicit in perpetuating that rationale and helped send out the call for arts and culture lovers to contact their representatives every time funding was threatened.

I’ve worked in the arts for 25 years. In all that time, I’ve never met a single artist or cultural leader who has said to me, “You know what I’m really passionate about? Improving math scores, creating exports, advancing health care and helping local merchants.”…

The arts and humanities have value because they make us better human beings. That’s basically it. They teach us history and encourage virtue, they help us debate serious issues in a respectful (or sometimes indirect) manner, they make us appreciate beauty, they make us more empathetic and they challenge our own beliefs. All of this helps ensure a skeptical, human and responsible citizenry. And if you don’t think that has value, well — what rock have you been living under?

A humanistic culture does not select a crazy demagogue to lead it. We are no longer a humanistic culture. One of the reasons we are not is because we, as cultural leaders, have abandoned our charge to create that culture, and do so without shame, apology or equivocation.

He argues for a return to advocating arts for arts sake and is pretty critical of the lobbying efforts of organizations like Americans for the Arts. In his view, they have been more interested in trying to make the arts palatable to legislators rather than advancing the values and interests of the arts and culture community which he feels should be nothing more than the intrinsic value of art.

The main reason you have a lobbyist is to advance your priorities as central to the republic, and to preserve those federal agencies and policies that support those priorities. Americans for the Arts has spent years and tens of millions of dollars advancing this neoliberal defense. Have we seen a steady increase in funding for agencies like the NEA and the NEH?…For too long, arts leaders accepted a foolishly low bar for success: the mere preservation of these agencies has been accepted as victory.

He claims, and at this point it is difficult to contradict him, that those that oppose funding for arts and cultural entities have never really cared about all the charts and graphs and studies. The opposition has only delayed the process of de-funding.

But what he suggests as a course of action is difficult and would take some courage to embrace because it abandons the evidence based arguments for less tangible measures.

We can extricate ourselves from this colossal strategic failure, and return to our true business: rebuilding the culture. We should stop being ashamed to believe in a value that cannot be weighed, measured, cut, or quantified — and to try and convince others to believe it, too.

I’ve floated these ideas to a few of my friends who work in the arts — privately, of course, because one never wants to utter such things in public. Almost all of them have said the same thing, and in the same weary, confused voice: “Well, yeah, Burriesci­­, I mean, I agree — but that’s just idealism.”


That’s all it is.

Now whether you believe that purely arguing the merits of arts, humanities, creative and cultural pursuits for their intrinsic value will be compelling, I think you have to concede the point that the terms and perhaps the very nature of the conversation has to change.

As many of you know, I am proponent of the movement to build public will for arts and culture. One of the reasons I like it is because it freely admits there isn’t one specific answer or approach that is correct for every community and situation. That leads me to believe the approach has within it, the potential to provide a better response in the conversation.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


1 thought on “The Safe Thing Is Not Working”

  1. This may be the best essay I have read on the internet in a very long time! Thanks Joe! You know exactly where I stand on these issues 🙂


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