The NEA emphasizes that it funds projects, not organizations and their operating costs. But money is fungible, and apologists for the NEA, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the like occasionally stumble into the truth that this is in part about “the jobs supported” by such programs, as Time put it. We have not seen any great renaissance in American creativity since the inception of the NEA, but we have seen tremendous growth in cultural agencies, in their budgets, in their payrolls, and in their administrative staffs. The NEA is only one factor in that, of course, but it is a considerable one, and one that sets an example for state and local governments — an example fortified by matching grants. This is why there are nearly three times as many people employed by cultural institutions as there are police officers — when you exclude the 54 percent of them who work in private, for-profit organizations. And the police payrolls aren’t exactly lean.
As anyone familiar with the Italian Renaissance knows, artists are not immune to financial pressure or financial temptations, nor are they averse to sinecures and offices. Of course the NEA has been involved in projects that have turned out to be worthy, or at least popular: But does anybody really believe that Hamilton would fail to be financially viable without government support? Does anybody think the Museum of Modern Art would wither without the NEA? Of course not. But the Hispanic Association of Contractors and Enterprises in Philadelphia would be out $25,000, and this facsimile of Mr. Snuffleupagus made from chain-link fence might not exist.
Public funding of art means that support and honors come not from creating great works but from flattering politicians or at least giving them the opportunity to cut a ribbon in public and proclaim their love of “the arts.” There is really no other explanation for the scandal that is public art in these United States. Our cultural bureaucracies, from the NEA down to the local organizations and institutions it supports, are the great enemy of American art, distorting tastes, careers, and patronage. They are a major factor in the malinvestment that has employment in cultural institutions growing significantly more quickly than that of the overall labor force. I am sure the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis is terrific — but 400 employees?