Public Arts Subsidies: A Clarification

A few hours ago, pianist Vijay Iyer took some exception with the big picture sketch I drew of the embattled JazzBaltica festival and European arts funding at large. Since a musician of Iyer's talent (and intellect) is one of the absolute last people I want to misunderstand me, I think my take bears a little bit of clarification. But first, here's the exchange, over Twitter:

@vijayiyer: interesting anti-public funding for the arts discussions. guess my career is over. nice knowing you guys
@blogsupreme: my dude, not at all. read closer ...
@vijayiyer: @blogsupreme i know, i was joking!
@vijayiyer: really only half-joking. leave it up to the marketplace and you favor: (1) kenny g etc (2) jam bands etc (3) good-looking singers etc
@blogsupreme: @vijayiyer Oh, I know. Something to clarify, I suppose. The point was really just that EXTREMELY NECESSARY public funding ain't a guarantee
@vijayiyer: if you want the market to decide how much attention "jazz" receives in the media, then it would get much less than it already does.
@vijayiyer: by the way, @blogsupreme : NPR is publicly funded
@blogsupreme: @vijayiyer All very true, and I don't forget where my checks come from. Not favoring a total free market solution ... more thoughts coming

At that point, I thought it would be better to bring the discussion off Twitter. So here's the clarification: I'M NOT ADVOCATING THAT WE CUT EUROPEAN ARTS FUNDING! In fact, I want the very opposite! I hope the essay acknowledges plainly just how incredibly essential government subsidies, especially European ones, are to the current jazz/art music community. At this point in time, for better or for worse, we need them to be around.

At the same time, we can't take them for granted. If a neo-liberal government comes into power in, say, Denmark during a budget crisis, and does not subscribe to the idea that the arts are good for people, there goes half the Copenhagen Jazz Festival. I don't know if this is the case for JazzBaltica and Schleswig-Holstein, but whatever the reason, one government entity holds the lever.

If somebody wants to fight the fight that jazz/"jazz" is worth public funding, please: I'll back you with the force of as many page views as I can muster. But anywhere you have capitalism, you'll also have fiscal conservatives providing natural resistance to this — especially from a U.S. perspective, where the political movement du jour is the Tea Party. It seems that at its root, it's an ideological struggle which will exist for a long time.

I think we're overlooking some potential power in the free market. For one, the market for jazz helps convince governments that concerts and festivals provide economic stimulus; for another, it's potentially an important source of revenue in itself. (If you look at NPR's actual funding breakdown, our development staff seems to have realized this latter point as well.)

Perhaps this current market for jazz isn't ideal, but that's also what I'm saying. So long as we're reassessing the future of where our money comes from, why not think about how it looks in both public and private sectors? How can we best attract funding, government and commercial, around the music we enjoy, in the way we want it? That sounds a bit pie in the sky, but as JazzBaltica shows, so is the idea that governments will always support jazz music unless we do something — and preferably several different things — about it.

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