How Is the Sequester Affecting the Arts?

BY Jeffrey Brown  April 12, 2013 at 5:20 PM EDT


With the government sequestration now a fact of life, we’ve been looking on the program at how cuts are affecting or might affect various sectors. Today, we look at the arts and arts organizations with a leading advocate, Robert Lynch, president and CEO of Americans for the Arts.

(A transcript is after the jump.)

JEFFREY BROWN: Are you seeing any immediate impact of this 5 percent across-the-board cut on arts organizations? What’s happening?

ROBERT LYNCH: Well, what’s happening is, to the organizations’ credit, they are all trying to make cuts that don’t affect what the public sees. That’s good and bad for this cause. Everybody is trying to do a good job so the public doesn’t see things, meaning maybe access is as close to the same and so on. But what’s happening is that things — maintenance, staff, people who are involved with the edges of production and so on — those things are being cut, they have to. Something has to be cut. So what suffers is the experience that the American public is having. It would be like doing this show but maybe without that light. Or maybe you don’t actually need the wonderful guy standing behind the camera. Maybe we just leave it on. That’s what’s happening right now.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, these are organizations that are used to cutting to the bone, I suppose, right?

ROBERT LYNCH: Well, they’ve cut so much already. You take something like the National Endowment for the Arts. The National Endowment for the Arts had a budget that had reached $176 million in the mid-90s. One big slash came along in the Gingrich Congress and it went all the way down to just a little over $90 million. Now it’s built back up all these years to $166 [million]. It was almost back up to where it was, and then it was cut $20 million in the last couple of years, and then sequestration comes along and there is another $7 million off of that budget. So it’s back down in the $130 million area.

JEFFREY BROWN: I did see, though, on the other hand that the president’s proposed budget would give it a little bit more or keep it about the same, NEA and NEH.

ROBERT LYNCH: More actually. We had proposed in national arts advocacy efforts to this year bring it up to $155 million. And that’s what the present had in his budget. So if it gets to that level, given to where it’s been cut to, that’s a significant leap. So we’re excited about that, NEA, NEH, in the president’s budget. Now of course it has to go through the House and Senate.

JEFFREY BROWN: For people who don’t understand how this works, how does government funding for the arts affect people’s experience on the street. If I go to the theater, how much of a role does government or state, for that matter, play?

ROBERT LYNCH: Well, what’s interesting about that is that one role is the money and a much bigger role is the leverage of government money on other money. If you take a look at all the national arts organizations in America, 115,000 of them. When the National Endowment for the Arts was begun in 1965, there were only 7,000 of them. So one aspect of the influence of the infrastructure of support that was created was this growth of the arts in America. So you have the National Endowment for the Arts’ budget, 40 percent off the top goes to state art agencies. They exist because they went after the matching money. There were four before the National Endowment for the Arts existed, and there were 50 the year after. So it’s very clear that that government incentive from the federal government created all the money — some billion dollars — for the state arts agencies. So the leverage there then of the federal and the state money goes, and when these arts organizations are out there asking for private sector dollars, local government dollars, one of the first things that local government and private sector look for is, well, are the feds in? It makes a huge difference. If you just look at the money itself — federal, state and local government — it’s about 9 percent of the pot. Nine percent. If you just looked at the National Endowment of the Arts alone, it would be one-third of 1 percent. The money is not necessarily the big deal here; it’s the leverage.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mention the incredible growth and the number of arts organizations. There are sometimes the question, Are there too many? I don’t suppose you want to make — you are not going to make that case.

ROBERT LYNCH: I’m not going to make the case, because I don’t believe there are too many. But there are people — my good friend Rocco Landesman, he —

JEFFREY BROWN: He raised it.

ROBERT LYNCH: He raised it and he said there are too many. There are a couple of problems. First of all, the American system is about abundance. The American system, unlike all the other systems in the world, which can actually control how many things there are out there. I just mentioned that our government money is 9 percent. Well, in a place like France it might be 90 percent. But here, the arts organizations are self-determined, because like an investment portfolio it’s a mix of money. There is no one piece of money that actually can put an organization out of business. So what you have is this wonderful, enthusiastic, very American system of trying, like Mickey Rooney said, Put on a show, get out there. But it does cause a struggle, because there’s only so much money to go around. And yet the nonprofit organizations have continued to grow in number even during the recession. The enthusiasm for making the arts happen is at the core of it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, the argument, I guess, is that it’s a tough time, right? Everybody has to share in belt-tightening. Why not the arts, as well? Especially when you’re weighing it against other very important needs from people. I saw that a couple of years ago. I went to Dayton, Ohio, and I was looking at the arts organizations vis-a-vis food for the homeless shelters and things like that. People have to make tough decisions.

ROBERT LYNCH: They do, although the tight belt in the arts community has almost got a strangle hold on the arts community. I’ll just give you an example of what the arts have done related to that. Today if you look at the money for the arts, 60 percent of the money for the arts is from earned income. They’re small business making their own way. A decade ago that would have been 40 percent. What’s happening is that they’re tightening their belts related to contributed money and government money, and they are doing more as far as selling things and getting out there as entrepreneurs. That’s a good thing. They’ve been cut back so much already at the federal government level, and state and local have held pretty flat, that the idea of cutting more is in many ways unfair. The figures that I gave you earlier about the National Endowment for the Arts, it was already cut by 40 percent only 10 years ago, and so these additional cuts are on top of that. And also just one other thing: It’s not good conservative policy either, because the nonprofit arts in America are a big economic engine — $135 billion dollars of economic activity — and they are returning a very significant amount of money — $21 billion dollars — to tax coffers. So we’re trying to balance the budget? Don’t cut the thing that’s putting money into the tax budget.

JEFFREY BROWN: Are you getting much traction on that argument on the Hill? I introduced you as an advocate, and it’s Advocacy Day you had recently to try to make the case, right? And you go to the Hill.

ROBERT LYNCH: We had 2,400 people here on Monday night because Yo-Yo Ma gave an inspirational lecture on public policy in the arts, including money from government. And then we had 600 people up on Capitol Hill on Tuesday knocking on every congressional door. We hit all the offices, and their message was simply the arts are important and give a tiny little bit of investment and you get a huge return. Whether it’s the National Endowment for the Arts or the Humanities or the Institute of Museums and Library Services. And does it have resonance? Huge resonance. If we can actually get to make the argument about this model that we have in America, it’s actually a very conservative model. A little tiny bit of government investment leverages a whole industry, returns dollars to the tax coffers. Somebody has to listen to that, but once they listen to it or see it in their own community, we have a lot of friends. Which is why we have a good size Congressional Arts Caucus made up Republicans and Democrats, and they are people who are passionate about telling the story. But we have to do it constantly because there is constant change in legislators of every level — federal, state and local — so the story has to be told again and again.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Robert Lynch, Americans for the Arts, thanks so much.

ROBERT LYNCH: My pleasure. Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: And thank you for joining us again on Art Beat I’m Jeffrey Brown.