Is Your County Losing in Arts Subsidies?

Here's one picture that's worth at least a thousand words: the squabbling in Lansing over who should get public subsidies for the arts and who should not.

At stake is almost $30 million dispensed each year in Michigan for arts and culture through equity grants, line-item gifts, and the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs (MCACA). Some legislators are unhappy because Detroit, again, wants over half the cash. They want more tax dollars pumped into their home areas. Detroit's politicians say their city is the cultural center of the state and needs the money more than other cities anyway.

Amidst the grab for subsidies, hardly anyone is making the point that the arts are too important a part of the human condition to be dependent on government. Ending the arts subsidies will help both artists and taxpayers for the following reasons.

Art is an inherently private enterprise. Good art, music, and literature portray human emotions in such a way that people understand themselves and their lives in new and better ways. To do this, an artist must communicate effectively with an audience, and only the consumers of the art can really measure whether this communication has taken place.

Government subsidies break the connection between artist and consumer. Instead, politicians, their appointees, or an arts elite decide what art forms and what artists will be given money and which ones will not. These select few, not the public, become the judge of whether effective communication has taken place, will take place, or should take place between artist and audience.

Government should not spend public money to support some peoples' private tastes. Tax money collected is taken from everyone, but the appeal of museums, concerts, and symphonies is mainly to college graduates and the wealthy. Economist Paul Samuelson calls art subsidies highbrow pork barrel, a transfer of income from blue collar to white collar workers, and from farms to cities.

Art funded by taxpayers is divisive, politicized, and inevitably unbalanced within the state. More arts money goes to the Detroit Police Crime Lab than to the symphonies of Grand Rapids, Lansing, and Kalamazoo combined. More goes to the Detroit Zoo and the Detroit Police Special Events Division-which has little or nothing to do with art-than to 78 of Michigan's 83 counties. Almost half the counties in the state receive no arts subsidy at all; they only pay taxes to subsidize art for other counties. Such controversial spending has angered critics for many years.

The MCACA recently released a study with the Center for Arts and Public Policy at Wayne State University. The study argued that each dollar of subsidy spent on the arts generated ten new dollars- called the multiplier effect-in economic development. In other words, if a family goes to the Detroit symphony, they eat at a restaurant, pay for parking, and buy items that increase the value of the symphony tenfold.

Such dubious analysis tells just part of the story. Michigan has 9.4 million people and grants almost $30 million for arts and culture. This works out to slightly over $3 per person. Therefore, we can take a county's population, multiply by three, and see about how much that county pays in taxes for art. Then when we look at how much money the county gets back in arts subsidies, we can see that almost every county in Michigan is losing money. In fact, only five counties in Michigan- Wayne, Grand Traverse, Iron, Gogebic, and Houghton-received more in art subsidies this year than they pay out in tax dollars. What's worse, if we use the multiplier effect we must multiply these losses by ten.

Kent County, for example, gets $811,320 to support the Grand Rapids Symphony and 23 other local projects. But it pays over $1.5 million in taxes for the arts. This $700,000 loss translates to $7 million if we use the multiplier effect to estimate lost local revenue. Ingham County does a little better, losing only $140,000, but Genesee County runs a $950,000 deficit-or nearly $10 million when the multiplier is applied.

With almost every district in the state losing money according to the MCACA's own multiplier theory, no wonder the legislature wants to reorganize arts funding. Reshuffling the money, however, is not the best solution. Instead, the Governor should renew his pledge of August 1991 to zero out arts subsidies completely within three years-a pledge that obviously hasn't yet been fulfilled. That way each county can keep its tax money and its citizens can support whatever arts they want to with their own money.