Arts Commentary: Big Art — Big Greed

By Noah Schaffer

Members of the anti-arts Right are incensed by the stimulus funding going to Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center for the Arts. And they’re right.

The Kennedy Center for the Arts. Big Art Needs Your Help!

The right-wing media bubble needs a constant supply of villains to keep its aging audience in a heightened state of outrage over the culture wars. You would have thought that the horrors of COVID-19 and its economic consequences would have made that challenging, but this week a perfect foil emerged: The Kennedy Center for the Arts.

Tucked into the $2 trillion stimulus bill was $25 million earmarked for the DC arts complex. By comparison, the entire National Endowment for Arts, which provides grants for thousands of arts groups nationwide, was only allotted $75 million, at a time when every art organization has had to close its doors or cancel its season.

Fox News hosts pounced at the inclusion of emergency support for an “opera house.” It is a perfect symbol of liberal elitism, providing a good excuse to rehash (yet again) the decades-old debate about federal arts support. Republican politicians dutifully tweeted their outrage and blamed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

The Kennedy Center’s original $35 million allotment was eventually negotiated down by $10 million, but the government’s largesse made it into the final bill. The contribution is receiving enthused support from President Trump, who told reporters he’s “a fan” of the center and that “I’d love to go there evenings, but I’m too busy doing things.”

Trump’s praise gets at the real reason the Kennedy Center is receiving so much financial love from the tax coffers: its board is a bipartisan assemblage of muckamucks, a who’s who of legislators, cabinet officials, and judges. The performance center’s galas are must-attend DC events. One of the current board members, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, complained in a tweet about some of Pelosi’s other choices for the stimulus bill. But he insisted, correctly, that the Kennedy Center’s current shut down was “covid related.” Huckabee then made the incredible claim that the Kennedy Center, which has an endowment worth over $100 million, “may never reopen.”

Long before COVID-19, scrappy small/medium arts organizations have been fighting for every federal dollar while big art has been feasting at the trough. A glance at the most recent available Kennedy Center tax filing, for the period ending September 2019, hardly suggests an institution in need. Executive director Deborah Rutter took home a whopping $1.3 million in total compensation from the nonprofit. At least 20 other employees made six figures.

And how is the money spent? Besides housing major symphony and opera companies, there’s no question that the Kennedy Center supports worthwhile endeavors, such as its youth programs, daily free concerts, and an impressive jazz series curated by Jason Moran.

But not everything it does has such an obvious public benefit. Like many other expansive performing arts centers, the Kennedy Center has hosted long runs of expensively priced shows like The Book of Mormon, which played at for-profit theaters in New York and Boston. Perhaps most dubious is its decades-long engagement of the tourist staple Shear Madness, a critically panned, stereotype-driven murder mystery.

Sending the Kennedy Center mega-sacks of dollars will not be a total waste. Supporters can reasonably claim that once the COVID-19 scare has passed there will be a need for boffo tourist attractions to bring in travel dollars. The fact that the arts provide more economic benefits than professional sports has been proven by multiple studies.

But, at a time when nearly every artist is suffering, when so many institutions are scrambling to survive, there’s no reasonable justification for diverting such heaps of bounty to the Kennedy Center. It’s further proof that Uncle Sam likes its Art Big. There is little doubt that it is going to be up to individual arts supporters to ensure that their favorite artists and venues, further down the food chain, survive.

Over the past 15 years Noah Schaffer has written about otherwise unheralded musicians from the worlds of gospel, jazz, blues, Latin, African, reggae, Middle Eastern music, klezmer, polka, and far beyond. He has won over 10 awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association.


  1. Joseph Mirrione on March 26, 2020 at 5:53 pm

    Extremely well-written and well-thought out. Its tough to disagree with anything here, considering the numbers and the perspectives you’ve presented.

  2. Ian Thal on March 26, 2020 at 7:11 pm

    In the two years since I relocated from the Boston area to Washington DC and thus, spent more time at the Kennedy Center, I would like to concur with many of Noah’s observations, both about some of the questionable artistic choices, as well as its worthwhile programs –– and yes, on the vulgar level, it is a site for deals getting done between politicians, diplomats, and philanthropists –– in short, “soft diplomacy” and “soft politics”.

    But I would also be remiss not to mention that in the last year, a new complex on the Kennedy Center site, The REACH has opened with the expressed purpose of being more accessible to local artists who don’t normally fit under the heading of “big art” — Indeed, I have been part of a loosely organized and diverse community of playwrights called District Dramatists that up until the COVID-19 pandemic, had been meeting there at least four times a month –– I cannot think of a single arts or cultural institution in the Boston area that has been as generous to local artists as the Kennedy Center has been to its community.

  3. Rebekah brown on March 27, 2020 at 1:48 am

    No matter how you slice it, accepting Coronavirus relief money makes the Kennedy Center look really bad. I will never support them again.

    • Ian Thal on March 27, 2020 at 11:42 am

      The Kennedy Center is part of the Smithsonian and thus, actually part of the Federal government — it doesn’t choose to accept or decline Federal monies.

  4. Steve Provizer on March 27, 2020 at 7:56 am

    The salaries seem outrageous and a number of the “award” events could be produced by any commercial venue. Other kinds of support to the local arts community that have been mentioned seem laudable.

    I do take issue with the description right-wing media’s “aging audience.” Of course, every audience is aging. More to the point, an “aged” audience is far from the sole demographic attracted to right-wing media. Demographic breakdowns show that audience is overwhelmingly white. However, statistics from Fox TV say that 643,000 nightly Hannity viewers belonged to the 25-54 age group. To me, this is a not inconsiderable number of younger viewers.

  5. Marion Freedman-gurspan on April 1, 2020 at 5:49 pm

    The daily free programming is not to be sneezed at. It sometimes has well-known performers and sometimes offers a chance to little known artists. Also, the TV airings of performances are available to all. Fox threw out the bait, and we bit — arts organizations are now fighting among themselves.

  6. Lee on April 3, 2020 at 3:35 pm

    Pelosi Announces Appointments to John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Board of Trustees
    Washington, D.C. – Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the appointment of Congresswoman Joyce Beatty of Ohio and the reappointment of Congressman Joe Kennedy III of Massachusetts to serve on the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Board of Trustees.

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