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GOP ascendancy bodes ill for government cultural funding, says leading arts lobbyist (updated)

November 24, 2010 |  5:55 am

JohnBoehnerCliffOwenAP As far as money for the arts is concerned, Santa Claus is most definitely not coming to town in Washington, D.C., says a  leading lobbyist for the national advocacy group Americans for the Arts.

In fact, Nina Ozlu Tunceli, executive director of the group’s Arts Action Fund, warns that the tendencies in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives will be downright Grinch-like come Jan. 3, when the newly-elected 112th Congress will be seated. Many of the new committee chairs will be preaching smaller government, she said; and they’ll all be answering to John Boehner (R-Ohio, pictured), whose credentials as the new speaker of the House include not only having earned an F in Americans for the Arts’ pre-election Congressional Report Card, but also scoring a big, fat zero on key arts-related legislation.

Consequently, the outlook for federal cultural funding -– currently $167.5 million each for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities and $282 million for the Institute of Museum and Library Services  -- is grim, Tunceli says in audio comments circulated Tuesday by Americans for the Arts.

“[With] new members in place, forget level funding. We are looking at 20-30% cuts in last year’s budgetary levels.” 

NEAlogo Tunceli says the best argument that arts advocates can bring now to Capitol Hill is the familiar one about the arts being an economic stimulus package in their own right.  In that line of thinking, a buck in the pockets of nonprofits that put on concerts, plays, dance programs and art exhibitions is a buck that will reverberate through the economy, luring folks with spare cash out of their homes for nights out that typically also encompass restaurant meals,  babysitters’ pay and other purchases, on top of what’s spent on admission.

The same argument, she said, will have to be made to newly-elected Republicans in state government, where the GOP scored national gains in this month’s elections. There, she said, advocates won’t be fighting so much to prevent budget cuts for state arts agencies, as to save them from elimination.  So regardless of how they may have voted, Tunceli said, arts partisans in each state need to quickly congratulate and start talking to legislative newcomers, so they can get a quick education in how the nonprofit arts function, what they achieve, and how government funding can give them a boost.

The problem with the economic engine argument for the arts, according to critics such as the arts-loving but Libertarian-leaning economist Tyler Cowen of Virginia’s George Mason University, is that it neglects to take into account what the impact might be if the same money were spent elsewhere. It’s not hard to imagine an argument being made that if cutting government funding for culture -– measly as it may be with combined funding for the NEA and the National Endowment for the Humanities totaling a third of a billion dollars --  means returning  dollars to taxpayers, they’ll spend it in ways more economically beneficial than government grants to the arts.

(For the record: An earlier version of this post incorrectly spelled Tyler Cowen's last name as Cowan.)

 -- Mike Boehm

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Photos: John Boehner; National Endowment for the Arts logo; Credits: Cliff Owen/Associated Press (Boehner); NEA.