Private vs. Public Arts Funding

newmusicbox Fall 2007


Thank you for this very interesting commentary, Yotam.  The ten to thirty ratio shows that the Villa Massimo has about the same per capita ratio of fellows as the American Academy , because Germany has less than one-third the population of the USA .  The other factors you mention, such as isolated quarters, and the inclusion of foreigners are policy decisions that are not particularly influenced by funding systems.  Europeans, for example, generously fund resident foreign artists in most of their institutions.   (The beer, however, is definitely German in both its public and private functions.)


Asking the administrators at private American arts institutions about public funding is sorting of like asking the Pope about Martin Luther.  They have specialized careers administering private funds, a system that formulates their expertise, power, status, job security, and future employability.  Public funding is thus a heterodoxy that often challenges their entire belief system.  They have a vested interest in maintaining a funding system that is broken. 


This is illustrated in your interview.  There is no reason to assume governments will have more agendas than private funders.  Ask your German colleagues if they can recount an example of the government interfering in the arts.  They will tell you it doesn’t happen.  European governments avoid falling into that pitfall like the plague.  It would cause scandals that would end political careers.  It is similar to the way the American government scrupulously avoids interfering in the policies of the Federal Reserve. 


(Ironically, my wife and I are famous –or notorious—because our fight against sexism in orchestras has faced political interference in Germany and Austria , but that is a special and isolated case that shouldn’t be taken as a norm.)


It is notable that among the Western democracies, it is only in America that politicians regularly attack the arts. There is a very complex history behind this peculiarly American phenomenon that needs to be examined historically, socially, and politically.  Public arts funding requires certain kinds of political sophistication and experience that the American public and government have not yet developed.  The main cause is simply a lack of experience.


Comparisons also show that public funding in Europe is far more financially stable than America ’s private funding system.  In this case, the reasons are less complex.  First, individual and corporate endowments are vastly smaller than a country’s tax base, and thus much more strongly influenced by economic turns.  Second, the stock market can change drastically over night, but tax laws change slowly. And third, healthy governments have far broader goals and perspectives than corporations.


The ultimate test is to compare the number of arts institutions that the two systems make available to the public.  Germany , for example, has 23 times more full-time, year-round orchestras per capita than the USA , and approximately 28 times more full-time, year-round opera houses.  (Actually the USA doesn’t have any full-time, year-round opera houses, while Germany has about 80, but I added up all the partial seasons of the American houses with a very generous estimate to make the comparison.)


When I can get to it, I will send some numbers and analysis for funding in various European countries so that readers can see the extreme differences in availability of the arts created by public funding.  The numbers also show that Europeans tend to hold arts funding stable even during economic downturns. 


The American system is radical and isolated.  We must continue to challenge the constant, demonizing propaganda we hear about public arts funding.


(This is such an important topic, that I am sorry I had to scribble this post.  I hope it is clear enough.)


William Osborne