Michael Wilkerson, director of arts administration programs at Indiana University, Bloomington, has an idea that he thinks could funnel more money to the arts and lessen the influence of politics on the funding process: Use a small tax on the arts to pay for arts grants. I recently spoke with Wilkerson about his idea. Our exchange has been edited and condensed.
What problem would your idea address?
There just isn’t enough money in the nonprofit arts. Arts administrators spend an extraordinary amount of time fundraising and worrying about whether funders—usually individual donors but sometimes corporate foundations—will find their content acceptable. So often, even unconsciously, decisions are steered toward conservative donors’ preferences. The National Endowment for the Arts’ budget has shrunk dramatically over time after adjusting for inflation, and political problems have kept it from growing. At any moment, somebody on a grant from the NEA—or from the state arts councils, which are funded in part by the NEA but the NEA does not control—could do something outrageous that could take down the NEA in the next Congress.
How would the alternative funding structure you propose work?
I call it “using the arts to pay for the arts,” because it would be a small tax on tickets, downloads, and streaming. If you aggregate all these taxes—these would be small taxes: 1 percent, 3 percent, a quarter on movie admissions—at those kinds of rates, you could aggregate a couple billion dollars each year to give to the arts. Right now, the NEA grant budget is somewhere below $100 million. You could aggregate that money without inflicting pain on anyone or causing a drop in attendance. The money would essentially come from users of the arts, who would be providing a little drop of funding that could be redistributed to arts organizations or to artists who don’t have enough to get by on at the moment. Part of why I think this is a good idea is that lots of for-profit artists get their start in nonprofit organizations. Actors start off in community theaters, and then they make it to Hollywood.