You don’t appreciate oxygen until you’ve been without it. Similarly, many of us took cultural institutions for granted until we got a look at President Trump’s budget, which proposed eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. The proposal would also starve PBS and National Public Radio stations of funding.
As many have pointed out, this is misguided. The NEA’s entire budget costs the average American 46 cents a year, the price of a postage stamp. It’s also a betrayal of the public spiritedness that have made national treasures like our parks and libraries possible.
That said, we should not rely solely upon federal funding for the arts. This country has a strong tradition of private funding that has given us institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Smithsonian Institution and in a much smaller way, French Institute Alliance Francaise, an organization I support that recently held a spring concert in conjunction with Carnegie Hall, another cultural institution I am passionate about supporting. While it would be better if the federal government continued to offer funding, that threat might spur further private investment.
Private funding has a storied history
Throughout the Renaissance, most of the works of art we know best – including Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel and the works of Leonardo da Vinci and William Shakespeare – were supported by patrons. A patronage system also supported the arts in feudal Japan and southeast Asia.
The fact that patronage made some of the world’s most enduring works of art possible flies in the face of the belief that the arts should be self-funded and commercially viable. After all, the top-grossing movies often aren’t the ones that make the canon. Moby-Dick was a failure when it published in 1851, selling about 3,200 copies in author Herman Melville’s lifetime. It wasn’t until the 1920s that scholars began to appreciate the work.
By contrast, the track record for public funding of the arts is so-so. Since launching in 1965, the NEA has funded Prairie Home Companion and A Confederacy of Dunces, but nothing on the level of Moby-Dick or Shakespeare. Admittedly, that’s a high bar.
Business leaders’ role in preserving national culture
There are lots of deep philosophical reasons why the arts are important, but let’s stick to the pragmatic ones: Culture is a potent source of international influence. A country’s fine arts reflect its self-conception. We associate Beethoven with Germany, da Vinci with Italy, Leo Tolstoy with Russia and Katsushika Hokusai with Japan. No great country lacks those types of cultural touchstones, which speak to their gifts to the world.
Another pragmatic reason for supporting the arts is the rise of artificial intelligence. AI is already subsuming some white-collar jobs. Many occupations risk elimination, and to thrive in an increasingly automated economy, workers will need to do what computers can’t. Though AI may be able to think creatively at some point, that’s not likely to happen for decades, if ever. While STEM education will continue to be valuable, those skills will need to be coupled with creative thought. A young person today studying piano may never play Carnegie Hall, but its an aspiration that will help her develop critical thinking skills that employers find increasingly important. The arts are where the next generation will hone such skills.
As a business leader, being a patron then is not only good for the arts, it’s patriotic. In fact, it’s arguably the best investment you can make.