Public Policy & the Arts

What role does government have in the existence of museums?  Are museums governed in part by public policy?  In America, the majority of museums are associated with non-profit organizations or educational institutions, and of the remaining few most are owned and operated by communities or states.  The bulk of museums governed by the United States exist in Washington, D.C., namely the National Gallery of Art and the various museums associated with the Smithsonian Institution.

This is not to say that museums and public policy are not connected.  Much of the money distributed by the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities goes to the creation and preservation of exhibits at museums.  There is federal money earmarked for arts education in public schools.  The Institute of Museum and Library Services works to preserve cultural artifacts and utilize technology in ways to benefit American society.  Museums benefit from tax codes designed to assist non-profit institutions.

At the same time, while the role of federal bureaucracy in museums has increased, the amount of funding provided by the federal government has substantially decreased.  The National Endowment for the Arts was established by the Carter administration in 1979, and despite the pleas of Republicans to nix the organization, the Reagan administration published a report in 1982  which stated the great importance of organizations such as the NEA and the NEH.  However, over the past 20 years, funding has dwindled to where the NEA and the IMLS receive less money for operations than they did in 1992.  At the same time, Western European countries have a long history of federal governments promoting and patronizing museums and artists.

As museums struggle to remain socially and financially solvent, the role of the government in the preservation and funding of museum spaces will remain a contentious issue, especially in a time of economic strife.  As funding is the primary arm in which the government interacts with museums, we should not expect an increase in federal funding for museum spaces or exhibits.  However, that does not mean that the government cannot play a role in the preservation of museum spaces…nor does it mean that the government necessarily should.

I am trying to compile a list of issues involving museums and public policy, looking at the places of intersection and seeing where friction exists.  Once we have established the problems in existence, I hope to consider some and match it to existing public policy, or perhaps work to shape new policy.

  • The amount of federal money donated to the arts has decreased over the past several years, to the point that the real-dollar amount today is less than it was 20 years ago.
  • The government has a difficult time defining art, and thus prefers not to get into the definition.  This means that risque and provocative works of art are produced using government subsidies, a happening which allows certain interest groups to object to government’s involvement in arts funding.
  • Should the government be involved in funding the arts?  If so, what arts?  Does fine art get funded in the same way as folk art?  This is an argument between elitist and populist ideologies.
  • Since the inception of No Child Left Behind in 2001, 60-70% of schools have noted a decrease in time devoted to the arts in order to provide students with more time studying math or science.  This contradicts studies by the Performing Arts Alliance that show that students who are involved in the arts are four times as likely to get academic awards as those who are not in performing arts.
  • The federal government allocated $24 million to arts education programs in 2011.  This money is not spread out equally, but instead goes to schools that send proposals and grant applications, schools that are usually affluent and well-off.  At the same time, schools in financial trouble or with low SES students usually do not share in this or other arts-based money.  Can the federal government’s Department of Education (a department overseeing a relatively decentralized educational system) help provide equity in arts education?
  • With tablet computing now focusing greatly on revolutionizing the textbook (or just producing the same old thing as an app), tablet computing is poised to be as ubiquitous in education as notebook paper.  How can museums work with tablet computing to further the mission of arts education?
  • Is the purpose of the museum a place of art appreciation?  Is it a cultural center?  An historical center?  A community center?  With so many variations, finding consensus on any issue is difficult.

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