KILL THE NEA (Redux)!!!

A couple of months ago I wrote a post titled “Kill the NEA.”  To my surprise that garnered a lot of attention, though in retrospect perhaps I shouldn’t be so naïve about the power of the internet (please rf. Tunisia).  Now that some of the political establishment are hellbent on following my advice I’ve got a better idea.  And I suspect that they aren’t going to like it at all.

Thomas Jefferson once said (referring to the Great Revolution of 1776) that “God forbid we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion.”  Being the Radical Constitutionalist that I am I can’t help but agree.  Since the last true revolution in this country was, depending on your perspective, either the adoption of the current Constitution or the American Civil War, we are desperately overdue for another one.  Of course, the “Tea Party” would have you believe that they are the newest revolution but any true scholar of American history would scoff at that idea.  Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann do not a revolution make.

But it is definitely time to revolutionize our thinking about how the Arts are funded in this country, especially when it relates to government funding of the Arts.  As I argued in my previous post the current funding model is too ripe for political footballing.  It would seem that our options are 1) keep the current model and fight this ridiculous fight every political cycle (which assumes that we will keep winning that fight, and I thank God I’m not a betting man); 2) kill the NEA and its sister departments off completely; or 3) change the model.  Since the only constant thing is change…

One of the definitions of “Endowment” is “Funds or property donated to an institution, individual, or group as a source of income.”  Most medium to large scale Arts organizations have just such an endowment to help with yearly budgets.  But the National Endowments don’t function the way that endowments do in the real world.  In the real world an Arts org will raise, say, $10 million, invest that money, and draw between 4 and 5 percent on an annual basis.  (I am ignoring the lunacies prevalent in the orchestra industry where some institutions view endowments more like a slush fund, something to draw on when they have completely over-budgeted and are afraid to 1) ask the musicians for a pay cut; 2) ask their donors for more money; and/or 3) actually budget correctly.  This idiocy must stop.)

In that strange parallel universe that is government funding the National Endowments work quite differently.  Although they still are a “source of income” for those lucky enough to receive grants, the way that these endowments are funded is through annual procurements from the overall budget.  Therefore every year there is a huge battle over how much money is going to these endowments which could, in the view of some, obviously be better spent designing a new joint attack fighter plane or building a wall to try to keep Mexicans out of this country.  That’s not really an endowment. That’s a government program just like any other one.

Perhaps it is time for those of us in the Arts to argue for a true National Endowment, one that functions in the same manner that endowments in the private sector do.  As a dodgy example I present Fannie Mae. Now, before you get your undies in a bunch, I am not suggesting that any money should be managed the way that has been managed at Fannie Mae.  But I am suggesting that an organization could be set up under the same rules as Fannie Mae to act as an NEA.

On the Fannie Mae website it says:

“Fannie Mae is a government-sponsored enterprise (GSE) chartered by Congress with a mission to provide liquidity, stability and affordability to the U.S. housing and mortgage markets.”

The important part of this is “government-sponsored enterprise (GSE) chartered by Congress with a mission…”  Fannie Mae functions under the auspices of the government, and when run well it is essentially a quasi-independent organization with its own stream of revenue.  There’s our model.  Instead of killing the NEA, why not spin it off? Here’s how it might work:

  • Charter the NEA as a government-sponsored enterprise (GSE) with a mission to fund, promote, and enhance the Arts in the USA
  • Provide a one-time budget commitment of $500 Million to the new NEA
  • Set up strict rules concerning investment of funds (conservative) and distribution of funds (5% a year)
  • Establish a well-respected Board of Governance from government, the private sector, and the Arts
  • Amend the tax laws so that contributions to the NEA are tax-deductible

I don’t know about anyone else out there but I certainly would be willing to kick in $100 a year to a true endowment for the Arts set up along these lines.  The fact that it would be a GSE would somewhat shield the organization from the lunacies of the political cycle, and the strict funding and investment guidelines would ensure that this endowment would remain part of the American fabric for as far into the future as vision permits.  The NEA would be able to function in a truly independent way, solicit its own funds, and make its own choices.  Best yet, we artists and our supporters in the USA would be forced to put our money where are mouths are.  Do you want to support the Arts throughout the country?  Here’s the easy way – donate to the NEA.

Unfortunately, like all progressive ideas I’m sure this has a snowball’s chance in hell of happening.  The “Tea Party” ranters would much rather see the NEA shut down completely because, god forbid, we would actually support a free-thinking sector of our society that happens to generate $166 billion dollars in economic activity every year! Goodness, that wouldn’t make any sense.  But if some enlightened future Congress actually has the guts to make this happen I think the results would shock us all.  By my parameters the new NEA would need a tad over $3 billion dollars to equal the funding that the current NEA has for fiscal year 2011.  I bet we could raise that in a couple of years if we put our minds to it.

And if we, finally, put our money where our mouths are.

4 thoughts on “KILL THE NEA (Redux)!!!”

  1. But the current annual NEA budget is in the $150M neighborhood– which would require an endowment of a few $B, not $500M.

    Other than that, I like the idea; maybe better to have something like this set up, though, with private money– Gates, Buffet, etc.

    I’d go further– I’m a member of my local NPR/PBS station; I can’t help but wonder if it is time to pull the plug on their federal support as well.

    • Thanks for your comment, Dave. I did take that into account at the end of my post. Considering how many Americans support the Arts, either directly or indirectly, I don’t think it would be a stretch at all to have a fully funded NEA in a couple of years. The scary thing is that $3 billion is not a lot of money these days.

      As the late Senator Dirkson so eloquently put it: “A hundred million here, a hundred million there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.”

  2. In general, I’m not a fan of government being involved with things like education or the arts because I think individuals should decide what is worth funding and public education…well…it has its issues.

    But — I think your idea is sound: A one-time forced funding of the arts by the taxpayers and then it’s on the individual. I think it could work and it is certainly better than what we have now.

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