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The Art of the Mooch

Culture Pork in the Silver State

by D. Dowd Muska

uring the recent legislative session, Nevada lawmakers reaffirmed their previous subsidies to the state’s would-be cultural elite. The Gang of 63 once again served up a generous helping out of what columnist Robert J. Samuelson calls "highbrow pork barrel"—with taxpayers picking up the check, of course.

Yet the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada called no press conference to denounce legislators’ latest gift to the hoity-toity.

No seething columns were posted on Andrew Barbano’s website.

Joe Neal didn’t take to the Senate floor for some old-school "the-little-guy’s-getting-screwed" demagoguery.

And not a single critical editorial ran in Las Vegas CityLife or Reno News & Review.

Why? Because the art pork in question wasn’t the bill passed to "clarify" tax rules on Steve Wynn’s gallery at the Bellagio, but the funding reauthorization approved for the Nevada Arts Council (NAC).

Nevada’s leftists have made it quite clear that they feel giving a casino executive a tax perk to display million-dollar paintings is unconscionable. But they are conspicuously silent when the wages of janitors and cocktail waitresses are sideswiped to send a member of Nevada’s smart set to the Saratoga International Theater Summer Workshop. The $425 given for that jaunt is just one example of a recent grant awarded by the NAC, a division of the Nevada Department of Museums, Library and Arts.

Enlightened Pork

It’s safe to assume that most Nevadans have never heard of the NAC. Earlier this year the council’s own executive director described it as "sort of a ‘stealth’ state agency." Its federal counterpart, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), has been a key battleground in America’s culture wars for years. But the nation’s lesser-known state arts commissions usually fly below voters’ radar. The agencies’ link to the mothership is strong, though—the NAC and its siblings would not exist without the NEA.

Prior to the New Deal, the idea that government should subsidize culture had few supporters. America’s limited-government heritage proscribed such a laughable notion—as Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "Beauty will not come at the call of the legislature. … It will come, as always, unannounced, and spring up between the feet of brave and earnest men."

But during the Great Depression, FDR’s Works Progress Administration subsidized 45,000 people who called themselves artists. After World War II, when the money dried up, it took an even greater architect of big government to resurrect federal art pork. In 1965 LBJ won congressional approval for the National Foundation for the Arts and Humanities, which was comprised of the NEA and the National Endowment for the Humanities. The NEA gave money to individuals and nonprofit groups, but it also encouraged states to start their own arts agencies.

It took less than a decade for all 50 "laboratories of democracy" to dutifully follow orders. Nevada lawmakers created the NAC in 1967, but the agency didn’t initially receive—at least, not by the standards of ravenous bureaucrats—significant revenue from the state’s general fund. However, Nevada taxpayers weren’t the only ones being soaked for grants to Silver State artists. The NEA’s generous assistance saw to it that residents of Butte, Memphis and Hartford chipped in as well.

That all started to change earlier this decade when the NEA came under fire for subsidizing what many considered objectionable art. Andres Serrano’s painting "Piss Christ" was the most famous of what cultural conservatives saw as NEA-backed depravity, but there were plenty of other examples. So the NEA’s funding was cut—not eliminated, to the disappointment of many—after the GOP won majorities in both houses of Congress in 1994. The actions of those Republican meanies sent state arts agencies scrambling for non-federal dollars. In her agency’s 1997 annual report, NAC Executive Director Susan Boskoff complained that "the partisan attack on the National Endowment for the Arts led to severe budget cuts and drastic administrative reorganization."

Fortunately for Boskoff, her buddy in the governor’s mansion at the time was willing to harness Nevada taxpayers to pick up the slack. Former Governor Bob Miller helped the NAC budget swell. The year congressional Republicans pulled off their election shocker, the state agency had only $465,000 to spend each year. By 1997, Boskoff and the nine other full-time NAC staffers had $1.7 million to hand out. Miller had ensured that state coffers more than made up for the reduced NEA contributions.

What about Nevada’s new governor—the self-professed fiscal conservative elected last year? Any hopes he might defund the NAC were quickly dashed last December. Guinn’s Chief of Staff, Peter Ernaut, explained to the Las Vegas Sun’s Scott Dickensheets that Nevada’s new chief executive was "what I’d call an enlightened Republican." The NAC’s budget was safe, Ernaut assured the columnist: "The arts are so underfunded, it doesn’t seem like an appropriate place to start cutting."

This May the budget agreement reached by the governor and legislators slightly increased the NAC’s appropriation. And the agency might have had even more money to throw around, if left-wing firebrand Sheila Leslie had been able to push through AB 362. The freshperson’s bill—which never made it out of committee—would have devoted an additional $105,000 to the NAC for its grants, arts in education, and folk arts programs. Despite AB 362’s many other sponsors—including "enlightened" Republicans Dawn Gibbons and Kathy Von Tobel—the bill did not finally make the cut.

A NAC for Obscurity

Like most touchly-feely programs, the NAC has a vague mission statement: "[T]o enrich the cultural life of the state through leadership that preserves, supports, strengthens, and makes excellence in the arts accessible to all Nevadans." The NAC didn’t bother to give state taxpayers an accounting on activities in 1998, and it won’t issue its 1999 report until August. But in FY 1996-1997, the agency spent $530,600 on grants to subisidy-seeking artists, almost $200,000 on salaries and travel, $250,000 on administration and nearly $270,000 for its five different NAC programs: arts in education, community arts development, folk arts, governor’s arts awards, and artists’ services.

More recently, the NAC has commissioned the Western States Arts Federation to study "the economic impact of the arts and culture industry in Nevada" and awarded "Jackpot Grants" to 10 artists and arts organizations. Six fellowships were awarded for FY 1999, giving some Nevadans the opportunity to experience a unique kind of double dipping: being on the payroll at a government university and getting a subsidy from the NAC. UNLV’s Nick Rissman, UNR’s Susanne Kanatsiz and Truckee Meadows Community College’s Christine Karkow are currently enjoying that privilege.

In April and May the NAC hit the highways for what it called a "Statewide Conversation on the Arts." The road shows, held in 14 different towns in Northern Nevada, invited citizens to "bring your questions, comments and a friend."

"In the face of diminishing national funding for the arts in general," read an agency press release, "along with Nevada’s rapid growth rate, the [NAC] seeks help from the public with the continuation of NAC’s strategic plan."

The PR blitz wowed one rural newspaper editor. Doug Janousek, recently transplanted to Battle Mountain from Massachusetts, gushed about the NAC: "They’ve got all kinds of grants available plus they can also point you toward other grants and assistance out there from other sources."

The NAC’s quarterly publication neon, "a diversity of artcetera by, for and about Nevada and Nevadans," prints work by subsidized writers and artists. (If the NAC wanted to fight Nevada’s image as a casino-infested cultural wasteland, it could have picked a better title for its newsletter.) The publication "is sent, free of charge, upon request to 4,000 artists, arts organizations and interested individuals locally, regionally and nationally." In other words, the percentage of Nevadans who receive neon can’t even crack a whole number.

In its Winter 1998-1999 edition, neon ran this gem from poet Robert Creeley, who gave a NAC-funded reading at UNLV last October:

As I sd to my
friend, because I am
always talking, John, I

sd, which was not his
name, the darkness sur-
rounds us, what

can we do against it, or else, shall we &
why not, buy a goddamn big car,

drive, he sd, for
christ’s sake, look
out where yr going

The Rich Get Art,
The Poor Get Poorer

It’s tempting to poke more fun at the "art" the NAC finds worthy of subsidizing, but content really isn’t the issue. Whether NAC should be funding anything is the larger question. And thus, it’s the one that never seems to be asked by elected officials of either establishment party, who consistently swallow all the old subsidize-the-arts chestnuts.

The argument used most often to justify culture pork is also the weakest: that the arts cannot flourish without government funding. That’s hogwash, of course. Corporate giving to arts organizations has risen substantially this decade, to around $10 billion. In Nevada, groups such as the Business Community Investment Council have been formed to promote corporate philanthropy—including contributions to the fine arts—in a state not known as a cultural mecca.

The few subsidy supporters who concede the private sector’s generosity insist that arts agencies bring high culture to the masses (recall the make-the arts-accessible portion art of the NAC’s mission statement). The art-subsidy crowd continues to believe that government can nudge the hoipoloi into museums and galleries. There’s no reason at all to assume this assertion is true, and a number of indicators suggest that it’s downright absurd. Even New York University public finace economist Dick Netzer, who favors art subsidies, has admitted that they have "failed to increase the representation of low-income people in audiences."

"[L]ower income people are not interested in the kind of entertainment they’re forced to support; they prefer to put their money into forms of art often sneered at by the cultural elite," write Sheldon Richman and David Boaz.

But it’s worse than that. Since neither Joe Sixpack nor Jane Diet Coke are being converted to high culture, their tax contributions are actually rewarding high-income types. "[E]vidence suggests that government art subsidies flow from the poor and middle classes to wealthier citizens, and not vice versa," writes Michael LaFaive, of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

Of course, fine-arts consumers are more than capable of covering their tastes’ full cost. Notes writer Edward Banfield, "The art public is now, as it has always been, overwhelmingly middle and upper-middle class and above average in income—relatively prosperous people who would probably enjoy art about as much in the absence of subsidies."

Reversing the roles is an instructive thought experiment. "Would government grant makers," asks LaFaive, "indulge a crowd that wanted subsidies from symphony-goers to pay for tickets to Ted Nugent’s ‘Whiplash Bash’?"

As for regular folks, they’re voluntarily spending more money than ever on art—although it’s probably not the kind Boskoff and her staff find important. As Reason’s Nick Gillespie recently wrote, commercial culture in the United States is experiencing dramatic growth. From radio stations to websites to films, America’s long economic boom has produced a mini-renaissance in the commerce of art. Annual book sales now top 2 billion. Sales of CDs, cassettes and LPs have doubled since 1985. Cable channels are proliferating, providing programs for gourmets, cinema buffs, amateur historians and many other niche groups. Independent film in America is blossoming, as is the growth of made-for-cable and straight-to-video filmmaking.

"Art is highly personal and subjective," writes LaFaive. "Forcing one person to subsidize another person’s art is inherently unfair." But with state budgets and Washington’s coffers brimming with dollars extracted from the nation’s strong economy, art subsidies probably aren’t going away anytime soon. Even what has been billed as Nevada’s recent return to partial fiscal sanity did not produce a cut in the NAC budget. For now at least, John Grisham aficionados and Quentin Tarantino fanatics in Nevada and the nation will gladly support their own choices in aesthetic and cultural affairs—while their pockets get picked by politicians and unelected bureaucrats out to subsidize other folks’ tastes. NJ

Contributing Editor D. Dowd Muska wrote about Internet gambling in June’s Nevada Journal. He can be reached at ddm@npri.

For Further Reading:
The Separation of Art and State

Subsidies to the Arts: Cultivating Mediocrity

"All Culture, All the Time," Reason, April 1999


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