Art for Art's Sake: No Spare Change

By Russell C. Pomeranz

This article originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal on September 9, 1994.


It is hard not to agree with Edwin Wilson in his article "Reform the NEA: For Its Own Good" (Leisure & Arts, Aug. 3). Unfortunately he has told the easy part of the story too simplistically. The notion that only noncontroversial art could be funded fails to note that in today's times very little is not controversial. Some right-wingers demand "Catcher in the Rye" not be taught, while some on the left can't cope with "Huckleberry Finn." In addition, most great art was probably controversial at some point, or should have been.

The difficult question regarding funding for the arts is where will the large sums of money necessary to sustain the arts come from. It is baffling that an industry that promotes the most creative endeavors cannot support itself in an equally creative manner. Recent experience shows that Mr. Wilson's call for reliance on foundations to support art for art's sake is unrealistic. Corporate foundations seem to have abandoned philanthropy, and seek some sort of tie-in to the products upon which their corporate sponsor is built. In addition, corporate sponsorship of controversial art is just not going to happen on any significant scale. 

Reliance on nonaligned foundations, such as Ford, Rockefeller, Mellon, etc., is also unrealistic for a number of reasons. First, they just don't have enough money to fund the arts on the grand scale that is necessary, especially given the less than stellar investment returns of the past six months. Second, and perhaps most important, many foundations are moving away from direct funding of artists and adding a significant social component to their arts programs, if not redesigning their programs altogether. Their goals have changed to help society directly, as opposed to assuming the work of artists would eventually accomplish such a mission in an indirect manner. Third, foundations do have boards and constituencies to answer to, and do not operate in the accountability vacuum Mr. Wilson suggests.

The challenge facing the arts is to move beyond the traditional, now tapped-out sources of funding, and create a new audience, a new source of funds and new investment vehicles to facilitate the process. 

Articles, Op-EdsRussell C. Pomeranz