Before my local cultural funding controversy—which included money for our historic botanical gardens—dies away (big fuss made, funding restored, end of story one hopes), I am sharing some further thoughts on this recurring phenomenon. Because it's been happening since I began to notice—sometime in the late 80s—and will continue to happen all over the U.S., especially as state and local economies continue their downward path.
First, it's always been a fight over pennies and it always will be. One legislator here made the comment, “Every year we end up arguing for 6 weeks over less than 1 percent of the budget.” It was the same with the big federal controversy over the NEA about 20 years ago. At the time, the entire NEA budget was the same as the cost of painting—not building, painting—a B-1B bomber. Yet the argument over this funding was front-page news for months, as congressman after congressman inveighed against the evils of Robert Mapplethorpe and Karen Finley. Everyone knew that including or not including this money would have no effect on the overall budget whatsoever. But maybe that was the point—to keep voters distracted while the larger problems of why and how and on what our resources are spent were left unaddressed. And what else weren't we paying attention to while that was going on?
Having worked closely with our city officials on a couple projects, I always find that government bureaucracies are very good at doing a little with a lot. That's why I lack sympathy for them when it comes to these issues. On the other hand, I find that—having worked for a museum for 10 years—art museums (and botanical gardens and historical societies and theaters) must of necessity excel at doing a lot with very little. Every penny of whatever funding comes in has to be accounted for in triplicate, but the amazing thing is how much programming, much of it in the form of education and outreach, comes out of that tiny bucket of money.
Which makes it all the more insulting that arts and culture are basically treated in the U.S. as distractions rather than efficiently-run and essential elements of everything that makes living in any community worthwhile. They provide substance in a society where substance is increasingly lacking. The Europeans are better at recognizing this.
I guess all we can hope for is that our botanical gardens, libraries, and museums will continue to be funded, because if that funding stopped, everyone would have to pay attention to our real fiscal problems. In such a grim reality, we'd need those institutions more than ever.