Posted by Bruce Miller
A. Barton Hinkle's Op/Ed piece in this morning's Times-Dispatch (Picking Apart Arguments for Funding the Arts) is a classic example of how ideology can trump rational thought and respectful debate. I often hold Mr. Hinkle's editorial writing in high regard because he usually builds his arguments on facts. In this case, as he joins the chorus seeking to eliminate the Virginia Commission for the Arts (VCA), he is either unaware of the facts or he chooses to ignore them.
I appreciate his mentioning that my friend Phil Whiteway "scores a nice point when he notes that politicians are quite happy to trot out the arts ... when trying to court Fortune 500 companies," although Phil's comments were more respectful and serious than A. Barton's condensation.
But Hinkle goes on to say "stripped of the rhetorical filigrees at which the arts community is so adept, the plea reduces to: The arts are nice and do good, so they should get taxpayer support." He misrepresents the position of most arts supporters in an attempt to paint us as frivolous and flighty.
Certainly there are a few in the arts community who have been focusing their defense of the VCA on the intrinsic values of arts in society, and that is their right. But many if not most of us have been saying that the main reasons to keep the VCA in the Virginia budget have to do with economic development, education and tourism. Hinkle, like his ideological cronies, deliberately avoids these more conservative arguments.
Hinkle compares the arts to the "Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts," "health-food stores," "newspapers," and "churches, synagogues and mosques," stating that they also are “nice and do good.” He then reasons, if these nice organizations receive no state funding, why should the arts?
The answers are simple, so it is hard to understand why Hinkle even poses the question.
The Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, both of which I support, are membership organizations that admit some and fail to admit others. Fundamentally, they exist to meet the needs of their members. Unlike nonprofit arts organizations, their programs are not open to everyone and they do not exist solely to serve the public good.
Now, if someone wants to argue that not all nonprofit arts organizations put the public good front and center, I'll agree with them in that argument, and together we can go after those slackers. But that has nothing to do with the industry as a whole.
Looking at health-food stores and newspapers, both of which I support, anyone among us can point to entrepreneurs who have made their fortunes owning and operating such businesses. That business model exists in abundance. Nonprofit arts organizations are not owned by anyone. They belong to the public, just like libraries and parks.
I co-founded Theatre IV 35 years ago, but I don't own it. When I retire, there's nothing for me to sell and no financial rewards for me to reap. We can all name grocery and newspaper magnets who have made tens of millions and more, but I challenge anyone to point out to me a person of any wealth whose fortunes came from founding a nonprofit arts organization. Such a person and such a business model simply do not exist.
Considering churches, synagogues and mosques, all of which I support, they are religious organizations. They admit members who share a common religious belief. Fundamentally, they exist to exalt the particular religious belief that is shared by their members, and to serve the community in the name of their God. And God bless them for it. But the reality is this. They have existed for centuries in the United States without public support.
Conversely, there are virtually no thriving nonprofit arts organizations that now exist or have ever existed in our nation without public support from their state government. You will be able to find a few unfunded nonprofit theatres, orchestras, dance companies and visual arts organizations, but it will be impossible to find any that maintain professional standards and thrive without state support.
I'm not speaking only of Virginia. Hinkle fails to mention that if Virginia were to eliminate its arts commission, it would be the first state in the union to do so. Are all the other states just stupid, or might it be that they understand sound financial arguments that the ideologues of Virginia simply choose to ignore?
Coming tomorrow – Part B: Rolls Royce and “a Medicaid Patient’s Physical Agony”