A Cultural Armageddon?

By: Frank Cadenhead
“What? America doesn’t have a Minister of Culture?!” I remember a good friend asking. “How do they manage?” The short answer: they don’t. To translate the French words politique culturelle into American English poses problems, since the concept essentially does not exist. It generally refers to the government’s policies for the arts but the U. S. government leaves their cultural heritage and their artists to fend for themselves.

Do not think for a second that the National Endowment for the Arts has anything to do with anything. Why it appears from time to time in the political dialog is always a source of wonder to me. When you consider the arts budgets of the rest of the modern world, their annual budget, their responsibility for arts support and any “leadership” is microscopic. Their total budget would not cover the cost of bottled water for the ministries of other Western governments who routinely provide the bulk of support for their resident orchestras, operas, theaters, poetry retreats, art museums, etc.
Surprisingly, however, America does fine with this arrangement. The outsized presence of American creative artists is everywhere in bookstores, the cinema, theaters, concert halls and art galleries all over France.

There is another factor here. A subtle anti-intellectualism pervades America’s public dialogue. If a public figure would talk about the theater or the arts, it would brand him immediately as some kind of “elitist.” While schools are usually named after presidents in America the nearest one to me in Paris is the Hector Berlioz High School and even the smallest town in Germany will have their Beethovenstrasse. Celebrating – and managing – a country’s cultural heritage is a common thread all over Europe.
While the American government budget for the arts essentially does not exist, there is a remarkable device that allows, with some effort, the arts to survive and, with some effort, to prosper: a section of the income tax code allows tax deductions for donations to non-profit organizations. Those who can afford this will not pay tax on their donation, thus reducing their overall taxes and growing their bottom line. This works for all charities, churches, hospitals, museums, symphony orchestras, etc. registered as non-profit. Stated another way, the government lets the public – particularly the wealthy – make their own decisions about what non-profit to support.

In their new book, The Management of Opera, Philippe Agid and Jean-Claude Tarondeau argue that this method of under-the-table arts funding works, in opera, about as well as well as the European model with Ministers of Culture making the final decision. Ticket prices are a more important revenue in America (opera tickets are twice as much as in Germany) and they need a whole staff chasing after foundation grants, etc. but the results are often the same. There is no comparison with subsidy-rich opera in Germany, but in other European countries who also support the arts, America opera keeps pace. One little detail: when American opera was growing in the second half of the last century, they built huge houses. The Civic Theater in my home town of San Diego seats around 3000. That makes it larger than any opera house in Europe. San Diego kept up with New York, Chicago and San Francisco in super-sizing their theaters. The average nightly opera audience in France is 870 while the same in America is 1870 according to 2006-07 data from The Management of Opera. That means that three performances of Manon in San Diego would equal six or eight in Lyon, Berlin or Brussels.
The tax deduction for gifts to cultural groups, argues the authors, provides roughly the same support as that given by the governments of Europe. The bottom line, they find, is that essentially the same percentage of people identify themselves as “artists” in both America and France. During the just concluded campaign for U.S. president, when Mr. Romney proposed eliminating this tax deduction, there were no cries of alarm or even any discussion even though it would mean an Armageddon for arts groups all over America. Having some hands-on experience with local orchestras and their quest for survival, the tax benefit for a check written to a local arts group is a critical element in their existence.

Today, in the newspaper, a column discussed President Obama’s tax proposals. The lapsing of the famous Bush tax cuts for the wealthy is only part of his plan. A second cluster of billions will be earned by closing “loopholes” for tax avoidance. Will charitable contributions be on the block? My advise to kids studying music: also study a foreign language. You might need it someday.

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