The biggest news on federal support for the arts is a lack of news. Following the 16-day shutdown in early October, the federal government was reauthorized at last year’s budget levels (post-sequester) until January 15. Which means we get to do this all over again in just a month and a half! Woohoo!
Congress has had its share of squabbles over NEA funding in recent years, but it remains remarkably steadfast in its support for the National Gallery of Art. It increased the Gallery’s federal appropriation by a whopping 70 percent between 2001 and 2011– not exactly a kind decade for arts funding. The secret to the National Gallery’s success? The original act of Congress that required the federal government to “provide such funds as may be necessary for [its] upkeep . . . administrative expenses and costs of operation.”
Meanwhile, in a decision some are hailing as a “huge victory for online innovation,” a federal judge ruled that Google’s scanning of more than 20 million books counts as “fair use” under copyright law – meaning, among other things, that the company need not compensate writers or publishers for making very short excerpts available on the Web. The Authors Guild plans to appeal.
Finally, the U.S. has lost its voting rights at UNESCO, two years after ceasing payment of dues, then 22% of the organization’s budget. National Security Adviser Susan Rice called the outcome shameful, urging Congress to amend the law that bans support of organizations that recognize Palestine as a nation-state. The withdrawal of voting rights is also automatic under UNESCO rules, but it may still endanger the U.S.’s applications for World Heritage status for sites like Poverty Point in Louisiana and Spanish missions in San Antonio.
STATE AND LOCAL
According to Jay Dick of Americans for the Arts, the results of the off-year election contests in Virginia, Boston, St. Paul, and Dayton, OH, among other places bode well for the arts, with several new pro-arts officials taking power. In New York City, Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio acknowledged the importance of the arts to the city by including several arts leaders in his newly-appointed transition committee. In other Big Apple news, the City Council held a public hearing on a proposed bill that would require the Department of Cultural Affairs to develop a cultural plan by 2015. Advocates believe this could coordinate cultural resources across agencies, increase available resources, and help keep artists in the increasingly-expensive city.
In other local election news, after fifteen years of attempting to find private funding for a performing arts center, the Myrtle Beach arts community won a victory at the polls this month when 54% of residents supported higher property taxes to raise the necessary $10 million. The City Council must still decide to undertake the project, but now “the rubber has met the road.”
The Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission, despite having its budget slashed to the bone in the most recent budget session, has been approved for $560,800 in federal matching funds from the NEA after losing out on that match for two years. The restored federal match unlocked further funding from Kansas’s regional arts agency, the Mid-America Arts Alliance. It’s unclear how the most recent budget shenanigans will affect the situation with the NEA. To raise additional funds, the Commission is trying an arts license plate scheme to replicate the success of a similar initiative pioneered in California. Speaking of California, that state’s Arts Council managed to get a donation check box back on income tax forms for 2013, although the name has been changed from the “Arts Council Fund” to “Keep Arts in Schools Fund.”
Our friendly neighbor to the north has made it a lot harder for American musicians to perform in small venues. The Canadian government recently established a new fee and permit system for musicians and performing artists visiting from outside of country. Interestingly the fees apply only to artists seeking to perform in bars or restaurants – and both the artists and the hosting establishment have to pony up the funds.
Across the Atlantic, Scotland deserves major props for a) unveiling its first national Youth Arts Strategy (with £5m of funding to boot); b) releasing aforementioned strategy as a graphic novel; and c) offering open feedback sessions to arts professionals and interested public as a precursor to the April 2014 release of Creative Scotland’s 10-year strategic plan and funding program. The new initiatives coincide with a significant staff restructuring at the agency. Meanwhile, the UK as a whole has just relieved producers of the burden of health-care contributions for entertainers they employ, though it is not yet clear whether this will lead to higher salaries for artists, larger production budgets, or simply smaller losses for backers. Shocker alert: producers and Equity feel differently on the matter.
Speaking of British arts agency planning documents, Chris Unitt went through the just-released second edition of Arts Council England’s strategic framework to see where digital technology fits in. There’s a heavy emphasis on using digital tools to reach new (i.e. international) audiences; less about using them to create new work or collaborate with other artists.
Australians have elected a new government to be led by Coalition, the country’s mainstream conservative party. George Brandis, arts spokesman for Coalition, has announced the party’s arts platform, which condemns an alleged tendency to reward “inwardness, mediocrity and political correctness” and emphasizes excellence, integrity, and artistic freedom. (Under the recent Labor government, arts industries in Australia had been receiving bipartisan support with a broad, positive impact on cultural production.) Brandis claims that the country should return to funding excellence in the arts, criticizing the Labor party for using arts to advance a social agenda.
Not to end on a down note, but freedom of expression difficulties continue in the Middle East. Qatari poet Mohammed Al-Ajami’s 15-year prison sentence for reciting on YouTube a poem celebrating the Arab Spring was upheld by the country’s Supreme Court, although his family can make a final appeal to Qatar’s Emir. Despite pressure from the international community, Al-Ajami is being held in solitary confinement as a potential insurgent. And in Egypt, comedian and talk show host Bassem Youssef, considered the country’s closest analogue to Jon Stewart, had his show suspended after just one episode amid alleged pressure from the country’s new military government.