If Public Art Is Popular Does It Need Subsidies?

Yesterday Tony Gehrig, who is a fiscally conservative member of Fargo’s city commission, sat down to discuss city subsidies for public art with what the Fargo Forum‘s Grace Lyden describes as “an audience of about 25 retired and current university staff and faculty at NDSU’s Memorial Union.”

Given that Gehrig is an outspoken opponent of subsidizing public art, and given what we can probably assume about the public policy inclinations of that sort of a crowd, you can imagine how the discussion went. Kudos for Gehrig for engaging his critics, though. That’s a rare sort of courage in politics.

What caught my eye, though, was this Gehrig quote from the end of Lyden’s article: “We all agree that people want more and more art. It’s a quality-of-life thing. And if we all agree on that, then why are we subsidizing something that’s popular?”

…people maybe support art subsidies because they want to signal that they’re cultured and supportive of the arts without actually having to turn up at an art gallery or something.

That, I think, is the crux of the issue. Do we subsidize art with public dollars because it’s needed? Or is it just virtue signalling? Which is to say, people maybe support art subsidies because they want to signal that they’re cultured and supportive of the arts without actually having to turn up at an art gallery or something.

This is a concept which applies to a broad spectrum of public policy, I think. Supporting a certain type of public policy, and signaling that support to your fellow citizens, is often much easier than actually, you know, doing something.

“Why give to charity when you can demand higher taxes?” Dan Hannan, a British Conservative MEP, writes for the Washington Examiner. “Why work as a volunteer when you can wear an awareness ribbon?”

Hannan compares this attitude to a new sort of conspicuous consumption. Only instead of taking photos of your food at posh restaurants for Instagram, or bragging about your lavish vacation on Facebook, you’re signaling to people that you are their moral superiors by supporting, say, a higher minimum wage.

Or public art subsidies.

I agree with Gehrig that there is more than enough interest in art in communities like Fargo to provide adequate revenues both in the form of donations and paying customers. I don’t think there’s a genuine fiscal need for public art subsidies.

I think there’s only a need for people to feel like they’re supporting the arts while spending other people’s money.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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