For whatever reason, this is about the time of year when things start to heat up in budget land, for the federal government and states alike. From February through May, we’ll find out a lot about where the NEA and state arts council budgets stand for fiscal year 2013, and what the corresponding ramifications might be for their grantmaking. Createquity will keep you up to date on it all with monthly updates throughout the spring.

FEDERAL

The President’s FY13 budget request is out, and (as has been widely reported) it includes a modest increase for the National Endowment for the Arts to about $154 million. This is a welcome turnaround from last year, when he kicked arts advocates in the nether regions by proposing (and thus setting up as the best-case scenario) a 13% cut to the agency’s budget, but color me unimpressed nevertheless. The arts community had big hopes upon President Obama’s inauguration that he was finally going to make cultural funding a priority, but at the end of his first term things are pretty much the same as when he came in. We had the best opportunity in decades for a game-changer at the beginning of 2009, and BHO passed it up.

But that’s yesterday’s news, and our cultural policy is what it is. AFTA’s Narric Rome points out some of the easily-overlooked details in the NEA budget request, including the fact that (if funded) the Our Town creative placemaking program’s budget will nearly double to $10 million; the travel budget is being cut by 25%; and Donald Trump (of all people!) is buying out the NEA’s current office building to convert it into a hotel, necessitating a search for new digs.

As we all know, the NEA isn’t the only recipient of federal arts funds. Mike Boehm of the LA Times rounds up the other figures: the Smithsonian gets a 5.6% increase including both its operating and capital budget; the National Gallery of Art gets an 11.2% increase; the Kennedy Center is cut by 2.4%, the Institute for Museum and Library Services essentially gets level funding. The National Endowment for the Humanities’ budget is once again tied to that of the NEA, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting stays flat.

STATE

Finally, some good news from the state arts council front! After three years of financial carnage, from which Michigan did not escape, ArtServe Michigan scored a threefold increase in the governor’s budget request for the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, and from a Republican no less! Granted, a threefold increase is a lot easier to achieve after your budget has been cut by 81% as Michigan’s was three years ago, but every little bit helps. This also is a success story for the power of data visualization and storytelling, as I’d be willing to bet that the very effective infographic on the promise of the creative economy that ArtServe put out in December had something to do with the victory. Florida is also looking at a welcome potential boost after several tough years in a row.

Unfortunately, some states still can’t seem to catch a break. South Carolina’s governor Nikki Haley has once again called for the South Carolina Arts Council to be eliminated, despite failing to kill it last year; there is now a proposal in the legislature to direct a portion of the state admissions tax to the arts council. And New Hampshire conservatives continue to apply pressure to the state’s Department of Cultural Resources, whose budget is practically nonexistent at this point.

Finally, we have an interesting situation in Kansas, which as you may remember was the first state to have funding for its arts council completely eliminated last year. Governor Sam Brownback is now proposing the restoration of a $200,000 pittance in state subsidy, with the caveat that it will go to a Creative Industries Commission under the Department of Commerce.

Barry Hessenius (former director of the California Arts Council) has an extensive interview with Craig Watson, current director of the California Arts Council. Because of the dire state of California’s finances, Watson reports that more general funds for the agency are unlikely this year, even though governor Jerry Brown is a huge supporter of the arts. For that reason, the CAC is pressing ahead with its campaign to sell one million arts license plates, a strategy that (if successful) would increase the Arts Council’s budget to over $40 million.

Americans for the Arts’s Justin Knabb has a helpful roundup of what’s going on with other states over at ARTSBlog. And if you’re curious about where everybody ended up last year, the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies just put out its annual summary (membership or purchase required).

INTERNATIONAL

We close with a few cautionary tales about the public arts funding. As I wrote earlier this year, it’s entirely possible for governments to have a pernicious influence on an arts ecosystem. Western Europe has managed to sustain cultural norms by which governments generously fund the arts while maintaining a largely hands-off orientation towards content (case in point: Arts Council England’s new £37 million “Creative Places and People” fund), but that doesn’t mean we can count on that always being so. Hungary’s recently elected national conservative government, for example, is making waves for “systematically replacing key figures in cultural institutions, staging pro-government exhibitions, rethinking permanent museum displays and replacing historic statues to fit its political agenda.” On the other side of the political spectrum, Venezuelan demagogue Hugo Chávez has received criticism for trying to appropriate the legendary El Sistema youth symphony program that preceded his presidency by 24 years. (Doug Borwick rightly points out the amazing fact that an arts program would be popular enough to be seen as propping up the political fortunes of a sitting president.)

Don’t get me wrong. I do think there is a role for government arts funding in the United States, especially at the state and local level, and I think that role could and should be expanded substantially in this country. (Hence my frustration that the opportunities to do just that three years ago were not taken by the current administration.) In a way, though, I think the fact that we’ve had to get by without much help from the government has been good for the long-term development of the field. It’s forced us to be much more creative and resourceful about finding allies, building partnerships, and cultivating earned revenue than we might otherwise have been. And in a political environment in which the “culture wars” are expanding beyond cultural organizations, perhaps it’s to our advantage that arts groups simply don’t have that much left to lose from government. That said, with diversified revenue streams in place, increased government support can only make us even stronger – and, more importantly, help to even out the inequities in arts production and access that market-driven alternatives tend to exacerbate.