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 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.