Is criticizing arts funding itself art?
Ann Arbor, Mich., is laying off firefighters, but it has enough surplus cash lying around to buy an $850,000 water sculpture, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy reported this week in a story that gained international attention when it was linked on the Drudge Report. While the nation scoffs at liberal Ann Arbor’s backwards priorities, many people might be overlooking similar scandals in their own back yards. The shocking truth is that governments across the United States are maintaining unjustifiable levels of arts funding while crying poverty.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported last week that the Fulton County Arts Council “signed over $1.9 million to more than 100 programs in the economically beleaguered local arts community.” And yet the county, which typically spends millions of dollars a year on local arts groups, is proposing to raise taxes so it won’t have to lay off teachers.
The state-funded Nevada Arts Council this month approved 149 grants for a total of $560,837, even though the state faces a possible budget shortfall next year of $3.5 billion.
In Ann Arbor, some public officials defend the $850,000 sculpture because it was financed through a separate account. Like many municipalities, Ann Arbor has a rule that diverts to public art 1 percent of the funding for capital projects that cost $100,000 or more.
But the money in that account isn’t dug from the ground with the first shovel-strike of each capital project. It is taxpayer money. Municipalities and states typically separate their capital and general fund budgets, but often the capital money comes from the general fund (if not from Washington). Ann Arbor officials say they can’t use the water sculpture money to fund firefighter positions because there are two pots of money — as if it’s just insane to even think of pouring one pot into the other in bad times.
That way of thinking is skewing public budgets nationwide. Instead of setting priorities so that essential services are fully funded, officials are acting as though every department, every program, every service has to be treated equally.
In New Hampshire, courts are being closed on some Fridays, jury trials are being delayed, and a court clerk’s office is closing every afternoon at 1. And yet the state Department of Cultural Resources has enough money to keep the state library open and continue doling out community arts grants.
The inability of public officials to prioritize is always frustrating, but in this recession it is becoming maddening. Do most artists really believe that arts grants are even with the court system on the scale of public priorities? Probably not, yet politicians act as if shifting arts funding to higher-priority public services during a severe recession is heresy.
If states and municipalities can’t even do this simple bit of budget prioritization, what hope is there for getting entitlement spending and other, more intractable problems under control?
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