Perspectives: Government Funding for Art Museums

In times of need, individuals and organizations turn to the government for aid. Museums, though non-profits, are vulnerable to the same economic trends as all businesses, although their demand and importance does not wax and wane comparatively–in our current situation particularly, the public thirst for cultural content is high as we realize the value of art not only in coping with difficult situations but in shedding light on important issues.

A visitor to FWMoA enjoys a glass exhibition. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

During past times of economic strife, the federal government provided substantial aid to cultural organizations. Although today’s situation is unprecedented in a number of ways, there is historical precedent for how the government has handled past economic crises–most recently the Great Recession, and nearly a century ago, the Great Depression, when the federal government put artists to work through a variety of programs under the umbrella of the Works Progress Administration. While such sweeping legislation is unthinkable today, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, passed in March, allocated $200 million in aid to the federal agencies that distribute funding to museums and other cultural institutions. Even so, there is a scary statistic you may have heard: as many as 30% of museums in the U.S. could permanently close as a result of the pandemic. This number comes from an American Alliance of Museum (AAM) survey of museum directors, 16% of whom said their museums are strongly at risk of closing without additional funding, and another 17% said they weren’t sure if they would survive.

The funding of museums is a complicated and ever-evolving issue. To narrow our argument, we’re not getting into other funding sources today, but only discussing the question of government funding for art museums. 

*The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily represent the beliefs and opinions of the authors but are intended to present both sides to help readers understand the argument for and against.*

For Government Funding

Amanda Shepard, Vice President & COO

American museums enjoy many freedoms that other institutions in our country do not. So long as we are law-abiding and ethical, we do not finally answer to the federal government or any of its many organizations such as the Departments of Education or Interior. There are some exceptions to this rule, such as the Smithsonian museums, but the majority of museums in America function independently of any overarching bureaucratic authority. That said, American museums should receive support from the government to do their work. This argument is presented regardless of the quality and party of American leadership, the realities of the American economy, or the rights or responsibilities of the taxpayer. That said, I present the chief reasons for my argument as follows:

The Smithsonian can’t, and shouldn’t, do it all. The sheer size and scope of the Smithsonian Institution is staggering. With 19 museums, a zoo, and several research and cultural centers, this cultural conglomerate speaks to our nation’s might as a leader in promoting knowledge among its citizens. It was founded in 1846 with funds provided by the Englishman John Smithson (1765-1829) to create an institution that “increases and diffuses knowledge.” It does this still today with museums for art, science, history, culture, biodiversity, and more.

Though the physical core of this network is in Washington, D.C., the Affiliates program presumably extends the Smithsonian’s reach to more than 40 states by making its collections and resources available to a variety of museums that meet certain standards. However, Affiliates do not receive meaningful financial support (in fact, they pay a fee to participate) and loans are still subject to the complicated web of policies that any museum faces. Though we can appreciate the efforts of the Affiliate program, it appears to be more of a membership program than a national effort to make the Washington, D.C. experience available to the rest of the country.

As such, the national sponsorship of a cultural program like the Smithsonian is laudable, but with most of its collections limited by geography to our nation’s capital, they are inaccessible to most Americans. If the government in 1846 believed in Smithson’s proposal and has perpetuated those ideals to this day, then it should look at museums across the country as extensions of its reach and provide financial support in some amount to museums that meet reasonable professional standards. Though the Affiliates program seemingly shares the Smithsonian across the country, it does so with a rubber stamp and so-called “access to resources” rather than direct financial support to robustly independent museums that fulfill Smithson’s vision in their own way.

Museums fill in the gaps and bridge the divide. In schools across the country, cultural and creative education is often the first to be eliminated in times of budget cuts. As students grow, they are expected to develop job-ready skills with an emphasis on becoming exceptionally versed in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) and often at the expense of developing capacities in the liberal arts. No reasonable person should pit one against the other, but it is just as unreasonable to marginalize the liberal arts as an impractical disciplinary pursuit that leads nowhere.

Without history, philosophy, language arts, music, and, of course, art, students are robbed of developing the critical functions of thinking, communicating, intuiting, and abstract reasoning. Of course, the sciences nurture these traits as well, but not everyone is born loving or succeeding in the STEM disciplines. If the government simply cannot risk a long-term investment in a broader liberal arts education for its public schools, then it should consider museums as important but independent partners that receive a modest sum of money each year to contribute to a more well-rounded education program for its citizens.

Cultural history is key to national identity. American museums were born in the immediate decades after the Civil War and professionalized quickly from about 1900-1930. If you’ve ever visited museums in Europe, you’ll notice that they were built for royal collections or are filled with antiquities that reflect a region’s ancient past. America has no such collections and little ancient legacy, so our museums in their earliest years could not rely on the sheer wonder of old masterworks or 4,000-year-old artifacts to make them worthwhile. As such, our earliest collecting and display strategies were modeled after the German concept of Kulturgeschichte (cultural history) which aims to present objects within original cultural contexts such as religion, politics, philosophy, and science. An example of this is a period room in a museum in which we might see American furniture presented with silver, art, and textiles from the same period and in a diorama-like room modeled for the appropriate time. Early museum leaders saw this approach as a way for museums to grow out of provincialist tendencies that left curatorship up to personal whims and quaint community interests. Kulturgeschichte was one of the first organizing principles for museums nationwide aimed at professionalizing the field and contributing to a national education that was distinctly American.

Though American museums are as diverse as our country, we take for granted that most of them sprang forth from Kulturgeschichte and still bear this unifying principle of what might also be called “curating to teach.” Such a technique situates objects within a larger reality that makes them instruments for conveying some other value beyond mere appreciation. With this curatorial technique, not only are Americans treated to an exciting and immersive learning experience, but they come to understand the hopes, tragedies, achievements, struggles, and even abject failures of their fellow Americans both past and present. In a country that prizes freedom and independence for its citizens, we must still work to build a national identity that is informed by our cultural history. The American story, even with the dark moments of its past, blossoms in our museums, and the government should support this purpose as an investment in the future we were meant to have.

Against Government Funding

Alyssa Dumire, Director of Children’s Education

When asking who should fund museums, the real question is, to whom or what should museums be beholden? In an ideal world, the answer would be simple: our responsibility is to the art or objects we collect and display, and to the public who wishes to learn from them. This responsibility to the truth shouldn’t be tainted by government agendas. In awarding funding to certain organizations over others, administrations send a message to the public about what kinds of art are acceptable. It also opens the door to censorship of those institutions that do receive funding–what stipulations come along with that financial support? Those who hold the purse strings also hold the power.

If we look back at American history and the ideals on which the country was founded, it makes little sense for the government to be involved in cultural affairs. European countries’ support of art and museums is directly descended from the patronage system enacted by royal courts. As the United States was founded in direct opposition to such governments, it is only fitting that our funding structure should follow suit. Our elected officials do not and should not dictate a national aesthetic. In determining which museums receive funding, this is effectively the result. 

Many would argue that if museums are taxpayer-funded, they should have free admission; after all, we’re already paying towards them. As of 2018, 32% of museums offered free admission, and admission fees covered 7% of operating budgets for those who did charge. It is unrealistic that additional government funding would make up the difference if all museums that are partially taxpayer-funded made the switch to free admission. Further, should tax money go towards an amenity that not everyone uses when it could be diverted to one of many more urgent needs? Although I would argue that the arts are essential to healthy communities, it’s difficult to prioritize them in the midst of a public health crisis.

In the argument for government funding, there is a glaring problem: whether it should be or not, arts funding is too frequently weaponized as a political issue, making it even more volatile than the economy. Should museums depend on fickle funding sources that change at the whim of the next administration? Although the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS)–the institutions that distribute funding to museums–are independent federal agencies, congress and the president determine their budgets annually. And, though they constitute a very small portion of the federal budget, they are constantly on the chopping block, in danger of losing their funding entirely. The NEA and NEH, for example, run on a minuscule percentage of the federal budget, yet in each year of his tenure, President Trump’s proposed budgets sought to eliminate them entirely (they ended up with minor increases). Overall trends show a steady decrease in federal funding for decades even as museum budgets (and therefore need) have grown exponentially. Funding from federal sources now makes up just 6% of museum operating budgets, while all government sources account for a combined 15.5%, and while this may sound inconsequential, museums depend on every penny. If the downward trajectory continues, the day may soon come when arts organizations will have no choice but to look to more stable sources for that support. 

The matter of government funding for museums is fraught with issues that lead to bigger fundamental questions on censorship, the role of government, and American identity. It is, by nature, unreliable, and museums would be better off finding more stable sources of funding.

Further reading and sources:

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