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How Trump Should Support the Arts

Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include “Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation.”
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Since President-elect Donald Trump has given few clues as to how he will approach arts policy, I thought I would lay out what a Trump administration ought to do. 

I applied several standards to my recommendations. First, they must save the federal government money, to appeal to the Republican Congress. Second, they should stand a chance of appealing to Trump, given his stances on other issues. Third, they should offer a reasonable chance of improving the quality of the arts in the U.S., and fourth, the arts community should not hate every aspect of the changes.

I also decided to focus on the current budget of the National Endowment for the Arts, which is $148 million for fiscal year 2016. That sum sounds small, and in practice the impact is smaller yet. The NEA sends 40 percent of that money to the state arts agencies, in part to shore up its political support across different regions. 

My first suggestion is to cease such transfers, thereby saving money for arts support at the federal level. Many of the grants to state arts agencies end up channeled to regional development initiatives, such as the construction of arts centers. There is arts support embedded in those projects, but a lot of it is actually stimulus and job creation. Some of those projects may be good ones, but they should not be the business of federal arts policy. To the extent that stimulus is in order, that can be done separately and on its own terms, as indeed Trump desires. 

Federal-level support for the arts is typically less conservative and more cutting-edge than state-level support, if only because the federal peer-review panels tend to be more sophisticated and local community pressures are weaker. For that reason, reallocating arts support to the federal level could provide more artistic bang for the buck. Thus it would be possible to spend less government money on the arts without a net loss of creativity.

Since this change would give the forthcoming Trump administration more control over arts spending, it might have appeal. If you are not a Trump supporter, this added control might cause you discomfort, but keep in mind that you’ll reap its benefits under future presidents. While politicization of the arts is a valid concern, the net shift in funds would be less than $60 million – less than the revenue from one mediocre-grossing movie – hardly enough to be giving any administration much control over the arts as a whole.

On the upside, recall that many art masterpieces of the past were supported by autocrats who were not generally exemplars of either democratic values or aesthetic modesty; the Medici family and Catherine the Great being two examples. Looking at the overall span of history, you can make a good case that autocracies have done a better job of arts support than have democracies. 

That’s not sufficient reason to have autocracy, nor am I suggesting that the Trump administration will bring autocracy to the U.S. Nonetheless, tolerating some arbitrary political control over arts spending, at the expense of regular bureaucratic control, could be a plus rather than a negative, especially over successive administrations. Artists typically produce many mediocre creations, and only a small percentage of enduring ones, so bureaucratization along mainstream lines may not be the best method for identifying and boosting creativity.

My second recommendation is to restore fully the ability of the NEA to make grants to individual artists, thereby undoing changes that were made in 1994. That would diminish the role of the middlemen and support artists rather than art museums. This too has the potential to boost creativity, as large institutions with overhead tend to be more artistically conservative than individual artists or arts groups. Such a change would take the NEA back to its earliest and arguably most effective period near its origin in 1965, when it supported creators such as Alvin Ailey, Merce Cunningham, George Segal, Ed Ruscha and William Gaddis (all grant recipients in the first year alone), among other luminaries.

You may recall that there is a reason why the NEA moved away from making grants to individual artists. The agency had supported several artists and art projects that displayed nudity or other images that many people considered pornographic or offensive. At the time, Congress did not wish to be affiliated so directly with such expressions of the human creative impulse. Therefore grants were shifted to higher-level arts institutions, with the understanding that the institutions would not embarrass the federal government in this manner. 

Is it possible that, under the forthcoming administration, this embarrassment constraint has eased somewhat?

Whatever problems you might have with the idea of a Trump administration, it opens up the prospect of a real improvement in American arts policy.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Tyler Cowen at tcowen2@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net