I learned late last week that Arizona governor Jan Brewer’s budget proposal zeroes out the general appropriations line for the Arizona Commission on the Arts, a cut of approximately $665,000, as part of her cost-cutting plan. The plan also includes moving 280,000 people off of the state’s Medicaid program whose eligibility was gained by popular vote a decade or so ago — but I digress. Fortunately, she is only cutting 8% out of the Arizona Arts Trust Fund, which is forecast to generate $1.4M for granting, programming and operating expenses of the commission, so the commission itself will continue. Arizona is one of 44 states with a structural budget deficit, according to a statistic in the New York Times, and arts commissions are perennially likely candidates for cuts. The Kansas Arts Commission is being hit even harder than AZ (see What’s the Matter with Kansas). Like Kansas’, several other state commissions are literally on the chopping block.
Does it matter? Nonprofit arts institutions receive, to use a broad aggregate statistic, only about 5% of their total revenue from government grants. Could these institutions absorb a 5% cut? Maybe. But the value of that 5% of funding is so much more than its dollar amount. State arts commissions, like the National Endowment for the Arts that funds block grants to most of them, provide symbolic capital – and a good thing to, since their financial capital is so small. Having a state arts commission is a signal that the arts MATTER, or, to use the National Endowment’s new catch-phrase, that the arts WORK. Bourdieu defines symbolic capital as “any property (any form of capital whether physical, economic, cultural, or social) which is perceived by social agents endowed with categories of perception which cause them to know it and to recognize it, to give it value.”* The existence of government arts agencies provides an imprimatur to the field we call “the arts.” When that symbolic capital, as embodied in our federal, state, and local arts agencies is reduced away, the cultural capital it supports will dissipate as well.
*Bourdieu, P. (1994). Rethinking the state: Genesis and structure of the bureaucratic field (L. Wacquant & S. Farage, Trans). Sociological Theory, 12, p.8