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Good and Plenty: The Creative Successes of American Arts Funding Hardcover – May 7, 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
Arts funding policy has dropped off the national public affairs radar in recent years, and much of the remaining debate continues to take the form of knee-jerk pro and con positions. Economist Cowen (In Praise of Commerical Culture) dismisses such debates at the outset, and goes on to make a case for the current American system, which, unlike the European model, emphasizes indirect, rather than direct, subsidies. Cowen finds that indirect funding-funding arts organizations rather than giving stipends to artists or commissioning works directly-is ultimately beneficial to the development of new artistic forms, and to helping arts endeavors flourish. He devotes significant pages to the history of arts funding in the U.S., including the New Deal-era Works Progress Administration, and also devotes a chapter to copyright, in which he argues that the Internet won't make traditional media and cultural forms disappear. Cowen references a range of well-known performers and artists, from Marian Anderson to Metallica, but the book is written as an academic treatise, with all the form and content constraints that that implies. For those truly interested in the state of America's financial relationship to the arts scene, though, it's a fresh approach.
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"A rare and much needed objective look at the topic of government funding for the arts. Avoiding the hyperbole often heard on both sides of the argument, Cowen offers a balanced overview of publicly-funded art. A must for the biased advocate."--Art Times
"Cowen makes the point loudly and clearly: indirect subsidy favors the decentralization of artistic creativity, particularly as it involves nonprofit institutions, and a thousand flowers can (and do) bloom."--J. Mark Schuster, Journal of Cultural Economics
"[Good and Plenty] explores the debate over government funding for the arts in an attempt to make each position intelligible and sympathetic to the other side."--Journal of Economic Literature
"Where Good and Plenty is at its best is in its discussion of the overall ecology of the arts and cultural sector, drawing explicit links between avant-garde activity and later commercial success. The narrative of experimentation as research and development for the sector is one that has recently gained currency in the UK and is discussed with persuasive force in Cowen's book."--Dave O'Brien, LSE British Politics and Policy blog
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He has done it again in this book where his intention "to steer the arts policy debate away from its previous focus on the National Endowment for the Arts. More significant questions concern the use of our tax system to support nonprofits, creating a favourable climate for philanthropy, the legal treatment of the arts, the arts in the American university, and the evolution of copyright law. I also seek to recast the debate over direct funding of the arts...A more fruitful inquiry involves what general steps a government can take to promote a wide variety of healthy and diverse funding sources for the arts."
Cowen is a professor of economics at the George Mason University (Virginia) and a daily contributor to the blog Marginal Revolution. He has a special interest in the economics and dynamics of the arts and culture, using culture in the broad sense employed by T S Eliot to include the preparation and consumption of food. Ironically (or appropriately) the most popular page on his personal web site is his ethnic eating guide to the Northern Virginia, Washington DC and Maryland area.
He has previously challenged widespread views about the damaging influence of capitalism and mass consumer culture on the vitality and diversity of the arts. "In Praise of Commercial Culture" surveyed the last two or three centuries to show how the capitalist market economy provided a vital but underappreciated framework to support a wide range of artistic visions. In "Creative Destruction" he pursued the same theme to argue that international free trade in goods and ideas will alter or disrupt many particular cultures but the net result will be positive.
In "Good and Plenty" Cowen is looking for some middle ground between libertarians who oppose any kind of government interference in the arts and others who think that the very survival of the creative instinct depends on the generosity of governments. The book is a remarkable contribution at the conceptual level and also with the mass of information that he has assembled on the diverse forms of direct and indirect assistance that US governents have provided. He set out to bridge the gap between economic and aesthetic perspectives because neither of these approaches can stand alone as a tool for evaluating policy. He explains how the US managed to combine luck and cunning to organise arts funding in a remarkably effective way, bearing in mind that the controversial NEA program accounts for less than 1% of public support for the arts.
His chapter on "Indirect Subsidies: The Genius of the American System" catalogues the many forms of indirect support (form tax breaks to the universities) that represent the overwhelming majority of public funding for arts and culture. A chapter gives the history of direct funding, and he agrues, contra received opinion, that direct funding is likely to be too conservative. The descriptive material in these two chapters conveys a surprising and counter-intuitive perception of the role of the US governnment in cultural affairs. Another chapter gives a somewhat disconcerting account of the mounting challenges from cyberspace to the benefits that creators and distributors of cultural have gained from traditional copyright laws. He ends his (possibly) somewhat rose-tinted account with suggestions for improvement of the system.
To get straight on the figures, he reports that donations (from both individuals and corporations) listed as tax deductions for 'Arts, Culture and Humanities' amounted to $30 billion in 2003. Compare this with NEA funding which peaked at $175 million in 1992. He estimates that donations of time amount to some 390,000 volunteers with a dollar value in the order of $20 billion. In contrast the French government limits tax deductions for the arts to 1% of taxable income for individuals and 0.1% for corporations. Germany allows deductions but bureauctatic restrictions make the scheme unworkable.
Cowen casts his net wide for examples of indirect support such as the Government promotion of international free trade through the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and the World Trade Organisation. Imported artworks are exempt from duty and until recently we are advised that the US government turned a blind eye to imports of antiques from ancient civilisations that may have been stolen or acquired in black or grey markets. Yet another form of support is the higher education system which provides a niche for large numbers of writers, artists and musicians despite reservations by many creative people about academic influences.
Direct funding commenced in a small way in 1817 with a commission of paintings to celebrate the Revolutionary War. The New Deal in the 1930s produced the first large-scale effort with assorted programs including the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) employing 5000 artists per year at the peak and 40,000 all told. The total cost of WPA programs through the New Deal to their close in 1943 ran to the vicinity of $100 million, equivalent to $2 billion today.
The Cold War prompted government aid far in excess of the generosity of the New Deal, through such a wide range of agencies and programs (including comprehensive cultural contol in Germany, Austria and Japan for several years) that the amount of money involved is very hard to estimate. Cowen estimated that cultural outreach peaked in 1953 at $129 million, over $700 million in current dollars and that was only a part of a much larger propaganda effort that spent up to $2 billion per annum, employed over ten thousand people and reached 150 countries. As a wry aside, Cowen notes that the current allocation for military bands at $200 million exceeds the funds dispensed by the NEA.
Getting back to the domestic function of direct support for the arts, Cowen points out that agencies such as the National Endowment for the Arts can either act as venture capitalists to simulate new artistic ideas (hopefully picking artistic winners) or they can focus on works of high culture that have stood the test of time. Their efforts tend to be split between these roles, trying to be all things to all people to ensure their political survival. The sums of money distributed in direct support of the arts at home are negligible compared with the volume of indirect support and so the fuss about NEA funding is a storm in a teacup and it is most unhelpful that the debate on public funding for the arts is mostly about the use and abuse of these funds.