Artistic endeavors should be supported on a voluntary basis

Over at The Lens, contributor Nathan C. Martin recently criticized the Louisiana legislature for cutting statewide funding for the arts. While Martin rightly celebrates Louisiana’s culture, his argument for increased government subsidies falls short. He claims that the budget cuts undermine the valuable asset that is our culture, but how can the legislature undermine something it has never been responsible for in the first place?

There are many reasons why Louisiana has “generations-old traditions like jazz, second lines, Mardi Gras Indians, zydeco and parade floats.” Our state’s unique history, geography and demographic diversity have all played a hand. If there is evidence that government support has been integral to any of these great traditions, Martin does not offer it.

If government funding were so vital to the existence of a rich local culture, wouldn’t other states have figured this out by now? According to this logic, Minnesota and Kansas need only spend a few more millions of dollars on the arts and they would become destinations for the educated young newcomers now heading to New Orleans.

Of course this is absurd. Just as New Orleans has its own culture, Minneapolis and Wichita have theirs. Each of these cultures has developed over many years and each appeals to some people but not others. State spending on the arts has never been a key factor in this process.

Some recognize that cultural traditions are created independently of government, but claim the state plays an important role in keeping these traditions alive. This, however, places too much faith in the government bureaucracies that deliver poor outcomes in so many other endeavors. To assume that taxpayer dollars are being used wisely just because they are dedicated to the arts is to ignore the rampant corruption and incompetence found in every other government realm. If the vitality of Louisiana culture depended on government support, we would all be in trouble.

The good news is that in a free society people voluntarily lend their support to the arts. This occurs in countless ways and has a track record of success that no government bureaucracy can match.

Preservation Hall, for example, was founded by individuals whose passion for traditional jazz spurred them to create a venue for the great musicians of New Orleans that had been fading into obscurity. Over the course of the past half-century it has grown into one of the most popular jazz venues in the world. Its owners have succeeded in preserving one of America’s great artistic achievements while turning a profit.

Another example is Frenchmen Street in New Orleans. This once-moribund area has become a world-renowned destination for visitors and locals seeking a range of music that cannot be found on Bourbon Street. Once again, individuals in the private sector found a way to make money while showcasing Louisiana artistry.

Undoubtedly there are worthy artistic projects that have benefited from state funding. But ultimately, the development of “new and innovative forms of expression” that Martin praises does not hinge upon government funding. The human instinct to create and consume art is too powerful to be extinguished by lack of state support.

When it comes to supporting the arts, government just needs to get the basics right: Keeping streets safe so artistic pioneers can revive blighted neighborhoods, removing unnecessary regulatory obstacles that might hinder enterprising investors in the arts, and ensuring that our children have access to a quality education so that they, too, will someday become participants and protectors of Louisiana’s rich cultural heritage.