These are tough times for art. I mean, they are tough times for everyone, but artists and art museums have been one of those industries that have been hit particularly hard. Museums are shuttered. The art market has all but dried up. A report found that 62 percent of artists are unemployed. Museums, galleries, and artists are attempting to improvise virtual exhibitions and experiences. But art is meant to be experienced physically—seeing a painting on a screen is not really experiencing art.
Writing in Artnet, Nasher Sculpture Center director Jeremy Strick has an idea for how museums—as well as artists, art donors, and local governments—could respond to such a moment. Looking back to the many commissions made through the New Deal during the Great Depression for inspiration, Strick proposes commissioning artists to create new works of public art for our cities. Public art, Strick argues, is uniquely able to deal with the spatial restraints of the pandemic. Museums will not be opening any time soon, and when they do, admissions will likely be regulated, and crowds kept to safe limits. We may be more comfortable seeking our cultural experiences outdoors. And while Strick readily admits that the Trump Administration is unlikely to come through with any New Deal-style program that will fund public art commissions, Strick has an idea for how to fund new work:
How could such an initiative be funded? States, counties, and municipal governments—which are at this time proving more responsible and effective than the federal government even as they cope with reduced tax revenues and greater demand for social services—may find that it is in their long-term economic interest to prop up their leading cultural institutions in a time of great need and to sustain the creative forces that make their communities vibrant. And while public funding may be understandably stretched thin, such a collaboration could also be supported by foundations, corporations, and individuals who might otherwise underwrite exhibitions at museums.
For an example of what this might look like, Strick doesn’t have to look far. In 2013, he helped organize Nasher XChange, a city-wide exhibition of public art, to celebrate the sculpture center’s 10th anniversary. The project was funded by the museum and its donors, as well as through partnerships with community organizations and businesses. Nasher XChange served the dual purpose of sending well-regarded artists into a breadth of Dallas communities to install work, as well as to send art lovers on a kind of civic-minded scavenger hunt across the city. Strick also points to a program that was launched in Buffalo, NY.
It’s a great idea, and I applaud Strick for his imagination and his initiative. The strange new evolution in the way we think about social space and social gatherings are affecting the ways we think about all sorts of cultural happenings and artistic performances. With the right support, the pandemic is poised to inspire a host of new evolutions and developments in the way we think about what it is make and experience art.
But while I share Strick’s realism with the regards to the unlikeliness of any federally funded cultural program, I am equally pessimistic about looping local governments into the patronage game. City, county, and state governments are all set to be hit with massive budget shortfalls as tax revenue sharply declines. The expectation is that the knives will be out to cut services and amenities and, as in the past, cultural funding is often the first to go. We can argue about how foolish this is—cities’ arts and culture sectors are huge economic drivers. But that hasn’t yet driven local governments to adopt taxing tools that could create funds for the arts that aren’t tied to the general budget, such as an increased share of the hotel tax. Until we can affect that mindset, we can expect limited public funds locally for arts and culture in the near future.
In fact, in addition to offering museums an innovative way to think about programming during a pandemic, Strick’s idea shines a light on a shortcoming in the way we have come to expect culture to be funded and supported. Local, state, and federal governments have seen deep cuts in arts funding over the past few decades. Instead, arts and culture funding in the United States has become all but the exclusive responsibility of private donors and philanthropic foundations. However, just as the crisis has crimped the art market, there is no indication that these art collectors, who are typically the same individuals who donate to museums, will have any increased appetite for cultural philanthropy. Strick points to a provision in the CARES Act that may help incentivize some charitable given, but in all recent economic slowdowns, patrons, like governments, tighten their cultural belts first. It is a model of funding and philanthropy that implicitly treats culture as a luxury good.
Is art and culture merely a luxury item? The art market in recent years has certainly evolved to a place where most visual artworks are simply tokens traded in the world’s largest unregulated commodities exchange. But if we look back to the example of the New Deal, we can see that what was different about the time wasn’t merely the available public funding. Rather, the public’s attitude towards art—and by extension the government’s attitude towards art—implied a different understanding and appreciation of the true value of culture.
What was so incredibly visionary about the way the New Deal funded cultural programs was how broad and far-reaching those efforts were. Not only were new murals and public sculptures created, but artists fanned out across the United States to document folk music, record Appalachian storytellers, and take photographs of marginalized communities. The New Deal didn’t simply support artists and create opportunities for artistic employment and experiences, it leveraged the capacity of our governmental institutions to help categorize the depth and breath of America’s cultural heritage. You could argue that the cultural flourishing of the 1950s and 1960s—from the emergence of rock and roll and RnB to a growing sense of the uniqueness of the American experience as expressed in new experiments in fiction and visual art—owed much to the cataloging, exploration, and exposure of this heritage made possible by the New Deal.
Strick is right to advocate for a return to this appreciation of the important of art in the life of a healthy society, and I hope the philanthropists, businesses, and local governments he calls on to fund these efforts have the capacity and courage to answer. But the example should also lead us to recognize that the way art is funded reflects the ways we value art. The fact that vast majority of arts funding in the United States comes from private donations exposes the entire cultural sector to the vulnerabilities of private markets, and it implies that art is thought to be something enjoyed in times of plenty. On the other hand, the New Deal offers a powerful example of why strong public funding of the arts is so important. Public arts funding expresses a shared societal view that art plays a valuable role in civic life, and it ensures that when the economy tanks, art doesn’t go away, precisely at the moment when we need it most.