Regardless of whether you think the National Endowment for the Arts is a wonderful organization deserving taxpayer support or an example of the federal government exceeded its proper bounds, I’m willing to bet you believe the NEA plays a bigger role in funding the arts than it actually does.
Here’s the reality, straight from the NEA itself: of all the money spent on nonprofit artistic and cultural programming across the country each year, the federal government — that means the NEA plus other agencies and departments — is responsible for about 1 percent of the total. Adding in direct appropriations from state and local governments, plus grants from tax-funded organizations such as the North Carolina Arts Council, increases government’s share of total arts funding to just 7 percent.
In other words, 93 percent of all the money spent by American nonprofits every year to produce plays, stage concerts and dance performances, exhibit visual art, and finance other fine and performing arts comes from private sources — from ticket sales and other “earned revenue” as well as voluntary contributions from foundations, corporations, and individuals.
Keep in mind that these figures reflect only the nonprofit arts sector. The for-profit sector is even larger, encompassing commercial art, live and recorded music, Broadway, film, and commercial publishing.
The overwhelmingly private nature of the arts in America clearly distinguishes our society from much of the rest of the developed world. On a per-capita basis, the Canadian equivalent of the NEA spends about 11 times what the NEA spends. The English equivalent spends 29 times as much.
I don’t see these facts as an indictment of the way we fund the arts. On the contrary, I celebrate it. Because our sector is overwhelmingly private, it is more innovative, energetic, and entrepreneurial. There is robust competition for talent, ideas, patronage, and audience. And our approach to funding the arts minimizes the extent to which we force taxpayers to fund artistic work about which they have feel disdain or a complete lack of interest.
For those of us who consider the fine and performing arts to be indispensible elements of a thriving culture, then, the freedom I celebrate leads inevitably to a responsibility to act. As president of the John William Pope Foundation, a Raleigh-based grantmaker about to celebrate its 30th anniversary, I’ve been working to sustain and build on an impressive legacy of support for arts and cultural organizations in our state.
Over the years, the Pope Foundation has given millions of dollars to educational programs, community groups, and institutions such as the Carolina Ballet, the North Carolina Theatre, the North Carolina Symphony, and the North Carolina Museum of Art. Just a few days ago, the United Arts Council of Wake County recognized the Pope Foundation’s efforts with the 2016 Business Support for the Arts Award.
We also just launched a new statewide program, the Joy Pope Memorial Grant in the Arts, to identify creative ways to make one-time gifts with ongoing benefits to artists, students, and their communities. The 2016 recipient of this annual $100,000 grant is the Fayetteville Symphony, which will use the money to create an instrument lending library for students from Cumberland, Hoke, Lee, Moore, and Robeson counties who participate in its youth orchestra program.
North Carolina has many corporations, foundations, and individuals who give generously to support the arts in their communities. But there’s plenty of room for more. In particular, if you share my view that government’s role in this area ought to be limited, then I would urge you to find the cause closest to your heart — be it teaching children to play classical music, teaching retirees to paint and sculpt, hosting a poetry reading, or producing Shakespeare in the park — and give your time and money to it.
Among its many lessons, art teaches us how to connect our past to our future. “Without tradition, art is a flock of sheep without a shepherd,” Winston Churchill once said. “Without innovation, it is a corpse.” Private initiative sustains both tradition and innovation. Let’s have more of it.
John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation, a public policy think tank, and president of the Pope Foundation.