Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Arts Day at the Statehouse: At Least It's Not Illegal

Yesterday I had a little exercise in representative democracy, attending parts of “Arts Day” at the Indiana Statehouse. It was an appropriately low-key event, organized by a non-profit group called the Indiana Coalition for the Arts, in support of the Indiana Arts Commission and other arts entities that receive state funding. I attended as a board member of an organization that receives IAC funding.

These kinds of events are planned months in advance, and so the arts advocates were hit by a double-whammy of miserable weather, and the fact that the legislators were dealing with a much more contentious issue, the Right to Work legislation. All in all, it was probably just as well.

State funding for the arts has never been particularly robust in Indiana, but at least during the current economic and political climate, it hasn’t been made a target. For the most part, the Daniels administration has given the arts about the same haircut that every other program and agency has received, no more or no less.

Federal funding is a different matter. This year, in the budget that the Obama administration put forth last week, many entities like the National Endowments for the Arts and for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (among many others) were targeted for cuts in the 8% range – while new approaches to defense and entitlement spending are deferred. The national associations whose e-blasts I receive aren’t urging me to lobby my Congressmen against these cuts – they are urging me to lobby my Congressmen against Republican amendments to cut funding to these programs by 100% -- to discontinue them altogether.

Now, I will admit that, as someone who has made my living in museums, I’m ambivalent about how federal funding impacts fields and institutions that I love. I’ve always felt like the peer-reviewed federal grant dollars always accrued to the largest institutions – the ones best positioned to dedicate the massive resources to the arcane application processes. I’ve always believed that time was better spent pursuing the far larger (and uncapped) pool of individual private philanthropic dollars.

And honestly, if I thought that accepting draconian cuts to my favored endeavors would fix our budgetary problems, I wouldn’t scream about having to sacrifice. But as article after article is making clear now – and at least some of our representatives must understand – we could cut all “discretionary” domestic spending – not only the arts and education, but foreign aid, community development block grants, the centers for disease control, highway funding, etc. – and the remaining federal expenditures (social security, medicare/Medicaid, defense, and interest on the debt) would still exceed federal revenue by a few hundred billion dollars this year. Zeroing out whole federal agencies will only add hugely to the unemployment rate and cause the bottom to fall out of aggregate demand in the still-faltering economy. Here in Indiana, the Daniels administration at least understood that.

But meanwhile, cuts to federal arts funding are inevitable; and they are probably going to come primarily out of available grant-making dollars rather than the overhead infrastructure. Because most competitive grants aren’t “renewable,” institutions tend to target them for new initiatives, or for programs delivered by performers and artists-in-residence that don’t become permanent operating costs. As always, it will be the lowest-paid and entry-level individuals who will suffer first and most.

So here in Indiana – despite some of the “Storm the Floor” rhetoric in the literature – filling the south lobby of the Statehouse with some well-mannered people bearing witness to their belief in the value of the arts was probably better than contributing to the general anger. At least there aren’t any bills or constitutional amendments pending to make the arts illegal.

Meanwhile, the real attention of the media and the disconcertingly large contingent of state troopers was on the north lobby, where large numbers of union members were gathered to make their feeling known about the Right to Work bill that would limit collective bargaining. (Although everything I saw remained civil -- all the carpenters and electricians that I encountered nodded and smiled, and held doors for my female colleague.)

At the time, my primary reaction was frustration at how difficult it is for a citizen to get into the Statehouse. I didn’t realize until this morning that state troopers were there, not to direct me around the building in the rain to the only doors where the metal detectors were actually staffed, but possibly to keep the Democratic minority from staging a walkout?

Because that has become the news in the time it has taken me to write this blog. The House Democratic caucus has disappeared, and may have left the state. And apparently, using the State Police to compel them to return is an option. Fascinating. I may have to go watch this in person …

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