Bernie Sanders Could Be the Best Arts President in US History

State support for the arts in the United States pales in comparison to arts funding overseas. Bernie Sanders could change that.

Bernie Sanders speaks during a US Presidential Candidates Forum at the 2019 NABJ Annual Convention & Career Fair on August 8, 2019 in Miami, Florida. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

During the 2016 presidential campaign season, Bernie Sanders made an unusual pledge: “As president,” he said, “I will be an arts president.” He cited, as an example of his past support of the arts, the Burlington Arts Council, which he founded in 1981 as one of his first acts as mayor of the Vermont city, with the goal of making the arts “available to all, regardless of social, economic or physical constraints.”

The municipally funded effort supported public art in the form of street murals and performances in parks, as well as brought arts programming into public schools and provided grants to artists and small arts organizations. Early in his tenure, Bernie and his wife Jane O’Meara Sanders, then director of the mayor’s youth office, overturned a local ordinance against live performances on public property to establish a youth center that became an iconic punk rock venue, which still stands today. He brought free outdoor concerts, too, to Burlington’s Battery Park; today, the Discover Jazz Festival continues to bring live music to Burlington each summer. The council expanded over time; in 1988 Burlington was deemed “one of the most livable cities for the arts.” Today it continues to thrive. In his pledge, Bernie was unequivocal: “Art is speech. Art is what life is about.”

In the lead-up to 2020, Bernie should reiterate this promise — and back it up with concrete policy proposals. The state of the arts in Burlington may be healthy, but nationwide, it’s in bad shape. And only sweeping changes to the way the arts are funded and disseminated will make the United States a country where everyone has access to quality, enriching arts programming, and working artists can pursue their passion.

The Problem With Arts Funding in the United States

In 2019, for the third year running, Trump proposed axing the National Endowment for the Arts, the federal agency founded in 1965 and the largest single funder of the arts in the country, which provides direct grants to artists and art organizations. NEA panels, made up of experts in different artistic disciplines, review grant applications and make recommendations to a panel. The NEA chairman makes the final decision on awards. Eliminating the NEA, however, would barely make a dent in the national debt, despite the Trump administration’s claims doing so is necessary to lower it. This year, the NEA’s appropriation is $155 million, which in inflation-adjusted numbers represents a steep decline from its heyday in the 1970s. The NEA’s most recent funding cut came in 2011 from the Obama administration, the result of a compromise with Republicans who wanted to do away with the agency entirely.

Tight budgetary restrictions mean that once the NEA has apportioned funds to state arts agencies, it must carefully divide the limited remainder across its programmatic areas. To many small, community-based organizations and individuals, the NEA’s support is instrumental in continuing their work. But in the absence of more generous state funding, the private sector wields great influence over the country’s cultural production.

And often, more prominent arts organizations receive the lion’s share of support. A 2017 report from the Helicon Collaborative found that 2 percent of American cultural institutions receive 60 percent of all national arts funding. Ninety percent of arts organizations — that is, dance and theater companies, musical ensembles, literature initiatives, and more — have budgets under $1 million, but only receive 21 percent of charitable giving.

This means that a flood of donations is still going to behemoths like the Metropolitan Museum of Art — which has an endowment of $2.5 billion — to the detriment of smaller institutions, which are more likely to feature the work of marginalized or unknown artists. It also means cultural production is concentrated in major urban areas and experienced by affluent, educated audiences. The result of relying on private philanthropy to support the arts is that countless creative voices go unheard.

Another outcome is that artists must increasingly seek support from private enterprise, which can come with some serious strings attached. The Mall of America, for example, announced a sponsored writing residency in 2017 which stipulates that the awardee’s work be approved of and owned by the mall.

It wouldn’t be a surprise if even the most countercultural artist found herself applying to a shopping mall for support. If she doesn’t have a day job or a significant side hustle, it’s likely that an American artist is starving. Only a tiny fraction make a living as working artists; most arts graduates earn $10,000 or less per year from their creative output. Moreover, seven of the ten most expensive institutions of higher education are art schools, which means arts grads are likely to carry a heavy load of debt. The same is true for creative writing MFA grads, which author Kelly Link recently called attention to.

Lewis Hyde writes in The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, “The problem is that wealth ceases to move freely when all things are counted and priced. It may accumulate in great heaps, but fewer and fewer people can afford to enjoy it.” When the means to create art is bestowed upon a select few, it will also be enjoyed by a select few.

A 2017 NEA survey found that Americans’ attendance of visual and performing arts events had increased slightly over five years. But when you drill down a bit, the picture gets grimmer: over the course of a year, only 8.6 percent saw a performance of classical music or jazz; 3.1 percent went to the ballet, 2.2 percent, the opera. Less than a quarter of Americans visited a museum or art gallery.

Numbers that low can’t be attributed solely to a lack of interest. The availability, affordability, and diversity of what’s on offer must also be to blame.

State-Funded Art Overseas

A quick look at how other wealthy nations invest in the arts reveals how paltry this country’s commitment to cultural production is. In 2017, the NEA’s appropriation was just shy of $150 million. The federal arts budget of Sweden, meanwhile — a country with a population of ten million — was $220 million; Finland devoted $523 million to the arts that same year. Iceland’s state funding for music exceeds ours, which may explain why a nation of only 300,000 has produced several musicians and groups of international renown. Norway is especially generous: established and senior artists can receive a guaranteed salary in the form of a work grant with a maximum duration of ten years, with the possibility of renewal; emerging artists can receive work grants to help them get established. In 2016, an annual work grant was worth roughly $23,000.

Germany’s cultural budget is €1.8 billion; the number of performing arts venues is, by American standards, laughably high. In a 2004 essay for ArtsJournal, composer William Osborne writes that in Germany, “cities with more than about 100,000 people often have a full-time orchestra, opera house, and theater company that are state- and municipally owned . . .  If America averaged the same ratios per capita as Germany, it would have 485 full-time, year-round orchestras instead of about twenty. If New York City had the same number of orchestras per capita as Munich it would have about forty-five. If New York City had the same number of full-time operas as Berlin per capita it would have six. Areas such as Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx would be nationally and internationally important cultural centers.” Fifteen years later, the difference in the number of arts venues between the two countries remains striking; this year alone, Berlin has staged eighty-five opera productions.

Germany also has programs that ease the financial burden on individual working artists. The KSK, social insurance for artists, provides subsidized health insurance and other benefits to self-employed artists who can prove more than half their income comes from working as an artist. (German health insurance is tied to employment; of course, a Medicare for All– or National Health Service–style system would be better for artists.) The KSK also imposes a tax on the sale of art to international collectors that goes toward funding its social insurance system.

In Berlin, where a white-hot real estate market is driving up rents, a new initiative provides affordable studio space to visual artists. Selection for these studios is granted not on merit, but on an individual’s ability to prove they are a working artist, and how well the space would suit their needs, says Zoe Miller, spokesperson for bbk berlin, a membership-funded professional association of visual artists in Berlin. There are about seven hundred of these studios available now.

Programs like this one have come out of activism and organized pressure from artists, not directly from the state, Miller says, whose system of grant-giving has fallen short given the number of artists living and working in Berlin. German artists who organize to pressure their government to provide more support are backed up by their constitution, which states that “arts and sciences, research and teaching shall be free.”

Germany has a long and rich artistic history to uphold, a tradition of patronage, and a legal obligation to support and protect the arts. However, many countries that don’t share this enshrinement of culture still do a way better job than we do.

The results are not limited to high culture. Courtney Barnett, an Australian singer-songwriter whose music has a throwback, grunge feel, was able to go on tour and record an album thanks to support from the Australian Council for the Arts; Abel Makkonen Tesfaye, who performs as The Weeknd, received $150,000 to promote his major-label debut from FACTOR, a Canadian nonprofit funded by the Department of Canadian Heritage and private broadcasters. The same organization enables Canadian singer-songwriter Owen Pallett to pay his bandmates a living wage, he told Pitchfork. And the Scottish indie pop band Belle and Sebastian got their start thanks to a Scottish social welfare program that paid aspiring musicians to take classes, use a practice space, and record in a studio.

Until it was shuttered in 2011, the UK Film Council, which operated as a private company but was established by the Labour government, used revenue from the national lottery to support British films by emerging artists, among them Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank, Jane Campion’s Bright Star, and Steve McQueen’s Hunger.

Bernie as Arts President

Bernie has already proposed policies like Medicare for All and free public college that would be transformative to the lives of artists. Without education debts to work off, or the obligation to hold a full-time job in order to have health insurance, artists could devote far more time to pursuing their craft.

In addition, Bernie should make the same promise now, for a 2020 presidency, as he did during the 2016 campaign season, that he will be an “arts president.” This should mean not only an increase to the NEA’s budget, but an expansion of the model of municipal arts councils like Burlington’s. Today, even in a city as famous for its cultural vibrancy as New Orleans, financial support has stalled for the local arts council, which only receives 1 percent of the city’s expenditures to fund public art.

Now imagine if every county in the United States had an arts council as robust as Burlington’s: giving generous grants to individual artists and small arts companies; hosting free performances of music and theater; funding murals, sculptures, and more to exist in public spaces; providing free classes in art, theater, music, dance, and literature. Funds would be distributed locally, to address the specific needs of each community.

The result would be not only the enrichment of individuals, but perhaps even a sea change in how the arts are perceived in the United States — not as remote and rarefied, inaccessible to all but the wealthiest and most educated, a “nice to have” rather than a “need to have,” but, as Bernie said, what life is about.

Models abound for how the arts could be more generously funded, like Germany’s tax that requires dealers to pay 4.2 percent of sales to wealthy art collectors into the state-run artists’ pension fund; in a country where more funds are devoted to military bands than to the federal arts agency, there are surely ample opportunities to reallocate money for the arts.

We also have examples from our own history, and there have already been proposals that could bring us closer to robust state support for the arts. One intriguing suggestion is the creation of a new Federal Writers Project — part of the original New Deal’s Works Progress Administration, which funded Zora Neale Hurston’s work interviewing African Americas in Florida and inspired Their Eyes Were Watching God, as well as launched the careers of writers like Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright — to be included in the Green New Deal. Through this initiative, writers would be employed to use their powers of storytelling to address the climate crisis. This vision could be expanded to encompass all artistic media. After all, stories are told through the visual arts, dance, music, and theater, too.

The original New Deal provided a livelihood to thousands of artists, many of whom became legends. Their work gave Americans a glimpse into the lives of people who might otherwise have gone unseen and unremembered, including survivors of slavery. The New Deal gifted us public works of art that still stand, and community art centers that continue to serve their constituents.

Once, we had leaders who saw artistic expression for what it is: essential to life, not a commodity on the free market but a gift to be shared among everyone, regardless of their economic status. Bernie Sanders, too, could be such a leader.