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ENDING PUBLIC SUPPORT TO ARTS IS SENSELESS

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There is no visible business sense underlying the effort by the 104th Congress to abolish public support for arts and humanities by cutting funding for the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities (NEA and NEH). The economic and cultural costs promise to be catastrophic if Congress succeeds.

The most frequent explanation, even those from Utah's apparent champion of these programs, Sen. Bob Bennett, is that the private sector needs to step more into the role of supporting arts and humanities, getting government out of this role, to reduce the deficit. "Let the market decide who survives and who does not," congressmen say.The tragedy is that corporate and business support is plummeting. If Congress ends funding, or even cuts it as severely as proposed, our nation faces a precipitous plunge into a culture of the lowest common denominator.

There are profound problems with the apparent congressional "logic." First, what an artist or arts organization has to do to be considered for that private-sector money is extenuating and rigorous, requiring staff and computer equipment that do not presently exist in most nonprofit organizations.

Those individuals and organizations below the threshold of capacity to find their needle in the private-sector haystack are goners. Is it acceptable to the public purpose of a society that seeks constantly to better itself to enter into an age of artistic and cultural ignorance and deprivation? "Suicidal" is a word that comes to mind, especially in a time of crisis in public education.

Second, the salaries that fund-raisers require are those of the private sector, not the nonprofit sector, which usually pays a small fraction of what business can offer. "You've got to have money to make money" is nowhere more true than in the world of the nonprofit world. Unless you have the funds to pay the fund-raiser, you fail, not even making it through the transition from the public-support chapter of history to the private.

This is a critical dilemma, one that is not even remotely understood by Congress to be as deadly to nonprofits as it really is.

Third, businesses are overwhelmed now by requests for funds. "Donor fatigue" is an increasingly familiar complaint. What would it be like if arts and other nonprofits were to succeed (unlikely though it seems) in staffing-up to meet the demands of the "free" market? How many new staff members will businesses have to hire to deal with drastic increases in grants applications, fund-raising boards, special projects and the like? What will be the costs to the private sector of dealing with all of this?

Fourth, what will be the artistic and academic compromises and costs to the nonprofits of having to beruled by the predilection of the business community? Businesses are not geared to planning for the arts and humanities. Arts are not businesses (tax laws won't allow it), and it is undesirable to make them into businesses.

Fifth, nonprofits are precluded by tax laws from lobbying more than 20 percent of their budget. Most, except for the very largest, simply have no available or skilled staff to lobby. This makes them defenseless against any political wind, such as that blowing through Congress now. While Utah may be one of the most favorable examples to cite in arguing in favor of a block-grant-to-states approach to solving this recurrent problem, there is no counting on stability in state government.

The only choice available (I advocate this) is for organizations to seek private-sector funds to band together to form 501 lobbying organizations, like the Sierra Club, to create genuine power for the arts and humanities in the political process.

There would be other changes that could be made, then, that would help to solve current dilemmas. The tax code could be changed to allow a wider range of fund-raising activities by nonprofits. If an arts organization sells too many Lee shirts, they can lose their 501 (nonprofit) classification, as the law is presently interpreted. Greater incentive could be provided to the private sector to support nonprofits, by increasing deductibility and credits for contributions. Long-term support should be especially rewarded to help create endowments, stabilization funds and other forms of support that enable nonprofits to do what their mission statements say, instead of dissipating their staff, time, energy and creativity trolling around town, pleading for funds.

We must suspect that there is an underlying motive for the cutting off of public funds. The public, as usual, is oblivious to most of the conditions of nonprofit existence.

If so, none of us can afford this, not even the private sector. The cost is far too high, especially compared with the astronomical waste hidden in military budgets already approved by Congress. Corporations and businesses that understand the dependence of competitiveness on creativity must act now to voice to Congress that the private sector needs public support of arts and humanities. The rest of us will have to say it at the ballot box.