Monday, January 25, 2010

Funding the arts and sciences

Judith Dobrzynski reports on a Cincinnatti Fine Arts Fund study finding that people expect the arts to "succeed or fail in the marketplace, without the need for support." This and other findings explain why "people take little responsibility for financing them with public money." The Fine Arts Fund thinks that a better message can change public opinion and generate added money for the arts. But what if the public asks what the arts sector is doing to finance itself?

When even museum trustees tend to ask museum directors to sell artworks to support supposedly-vital museum programs, you can just imagine politicians' skepticism toward arts directors requesting more government funding in the face of the current public attitudes ably documented by the Fine Arts Fund. Perhaps a new message will indeed change those attitudes, but that bet's both risky and remote for arts and museum boards across America that now face nearly universal cutbacks and the prospect of rapidly rising closures.

In fact those programs truly are vital, but you can't blame the trustees and politicians for wondering a bit when the museums' professional associations insist that death with dignity is far preferable to deaccession and dishonor -- a point the need for Dobrzynski's arbitrated deaccessions plan illustrates.

So far FASB 116 and uncapitalized collections have mostly kept a lid on debates over existing government support for the arts, but if politicians and the public widely knew what trustees already know about all the money that's sat in basements for years without seeing the light of day, much less the enormous fortunes hanging on the walls, you might see some pretty strong sentiment for cutbacks. These days those appropriations might better head off hunger and disease than ennui and alienation.

Rather than hoping the right spin will increase the arts' share of declining public and private discretionary budgets, museum trustees and directors need to decide whether their programs and arts programs generally are worth saving right now with financial value held idle in their mortmain model. If a few deaccessions can make the difference between survival and death for a museum, mobilizing the collection's financial value more fully could fund a substantial increase in programs -- spending that could help the arts sector and the national economy.

If growing museum and arts programs now meant a lot of deaccessions, a survival diet would make more sense. But these days partial title systems like the Maroney plan and my own Coaccession method can let a museum have its Monet and money, too. Generations of philanthropists have endowed major art museums with some of the best financial investments of the past century, turning them into repositories of a significant share of the national wealth as well as its culture. Mobilizing that financial value in this cultural crisis doesn't risk our cultural heritage nearly as much as does leaving it idle while hoping, perhaps vainly, for better attitudes and better days.

Museum directors like the fundraising argument that exposure to the arts and sciences stimulates the innovation that enhances the nation's wealth and wellbeing. Why, then, doesn't the impetus for financial innovations that can strengthen our cultural legacy come from inside our museums? Artworks can support the arts, so why do the arts lack support? Those allocating public moneys may ask.

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