Better Together: Public and Private Funding for the Arts

AXIS Dance Company, Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts, Oakland, 2017. Photo by David DeSilva. Dancers (left to right): Julie Crothers, Dwayne Scheuneman, James Bowen, Lani Dickinson.

From time to time, a healthy democracy will debate the role and responsibility of government. We are currently living in one of those times. The argument today is around the validity of government support for public programs like the arts.

Congress' recent decision to enact a modest increase for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) for the remainder of fiscal year 2017 was met generally with support. However, the White House has recommended eliminating federal cultural agencies in FY2018 and Congress must now determine whether it will continue to fund the NEA.

Lawmakers across the political spectrum recognize that the arts are good for America.  Leaders across the country have quoted the economic and educational benefits of the arts and regularly cite the arts’ health benefits in aging military populations. Policymakers have shared compelling examples of how the arts made their hometown shine, brought hope to troubled youth, and healed the wounds of a community in crisis.

There is no question as to the public value of the arts and, to be clear, the ongoing debate is not whether the arts have a public benefit, but whether the responsibility to fund the arts should lie with the federal government or private philanthropies. Abundant research points to a clear answer: the private sector alone cannot fund the arts.

Public and private funders have significantly different mandates, and a solely philanthropic arts support model would leave many American communities behind.

  • Foundation giving in America is not universally accessible: 42 percent of all foundation assets are held in just four states – California, New York, Illinois and Texas – that also account for 42 percent of foundation giving.[i] The number and investment power of foundations in the other 46 states are much smaller, despite their population base of 223 million people.[ii] Funding from the NEA and state arts agencies reaches every state and US congressional district.[iii]
  • Private funding shows gaps in rural support. Fourteen percent of the US population resides in rural areas, yet a US Department of Agriculture analysis found that only 5.5 percent of large foundations' domestic grant dollars go to rural areas.[iv] In comparison, 14 percent of both NEA and state arts agency grant dollars were awarded to rural communities.[v]
  • Private grant making does not always reach underserved groups. Between 2003 and 2013—when the assets of US foundations grew by $321 billion—just one in ten of America's largest 1,000 foundations awarded more than half their grant dollars to underserved communities.[vi] In contrast, 54 percent of state arts agency grants are awarded to low-income areas and 40 percent of NEA-supported activities take place in high-poverty neighborhoods.[vii]
  • Foundation support for the arts often is packaged in large awards. Among the foundations tracked longitudinally by the Foundation Center, grants of $500,000 or more accounted for 58 percent of all arts grant making. [viii] While beneficial to many in the arts community, this scale of support excludes many smaller, grassroots groups. The median NEA award size is $25,000 and the median state arts agency grant amount is $4,390 – making support broadly accessible through smaller, widely distributed awards.[ix]

The historical realities of how wealth was developed in our nation suggest that relegating arts support to the private sector alone would leave millions of people behind. And radical government cuts won't change these long-standing patterns: a survey of foundations after the Great Recession found that 57 percent had not changed their grant-making priorities in response to lower levels of public arts funding.[x]

Two visitors and a fiber artist at a loom.Weaving demonstration by Amanda Speer at Española Valley Fiber Arts Center, during the first annual New Mexico Fiber Arts Crawl, May 2017. Photo courtesy of Española Valley Fiber Arts Center

As chief executive of the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies (NASAA), I’ve seen how public support of arts programs and initiatives provides avenues for citizens to engage in civic discourse, gives voice to their aspirations, and inspires problem solving – all vital to keeping our American democracy strong, while building on local heritage and culture. For example, the New Mexico Fiber Crawl—an annual event produced by Española Valley Fiber Arts Center, with grant support of New Mexico Arts (the state arts agency), local farms, businesses, and grass-roots creative networks—connects the public to working artists and artisans statewide; promotes the quality and diversity of New Mexico arts; and brings recognition, tourism, and economic development to rural areas rich in artistic traditions.

Founded in 1987, AXIS Dance Company (shown at the top) is the nation’s most acclaimed ensemble of disabled and non-disabled performers. In addition to direct grant support from the California Arts Council and National Endowment for the Arts, it also relies on the public and private funds provided to the schools, universities and organizations that hire AXIS to work in their communities. 

Museum facadeFounded in 1914, the Baltimore Museum of Art houses an internationally renowned collection of 95,000 objects, including the largest public holding of works by Henri Matisse. Photo courtesy of The Baltimore Museum of Art/Stephen J. Spartana

At Maryland's Baltimore Museum of Art, free admission ensures everyone can enjoy the power of art. To make this possible, funding from the Maryland State Arts Council provides support for all aspects of the museum's operations, from programming and exhibitions to marketing and visitor services.

A group of male dancers in basque costumesOinkari Basque Dancers performing on the National Mall in 2016. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution/SarahVictoria Rosemann

Similarly, grants from the Idaho Commission on the Arts have allowed the Oinkari Basque Dancers to perform at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. The dance troupe performs annually at Idaho's Trailing of the Sheep Festival, which is also supported by the Commission and is a celebration of the rich cultures of the past and present that have sustained local economies for generations.

The bottom line is that our country needs both public and private investments in the arts. Government investments in the arts are citizen driven and serve the public interest, ensuring that everyone benefits. Private-sector investments in the arts have the power to capitalize major cultural endeavors, to foster creative experimentation, and to realize the investment ideals of visionary individuals. As singular private citizens, however, it is each of our duties to support the arts through our time, talents and resources. It is also our duty as private citizens, to engage in conversations about the government’s role and its responsibility to citizens.

This is not a zero-sum equation. America needs both.

Pam Breaux has served as chief executive officer of the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies since 2015.


[i]        Foundation Center, "Foundation Stats," Aggregate Fiscal Data of Foundations in the U.S. by Location, 2014.

[ii]          U.S. Census Bureau, "Annual Estimates of the Resident Population: April 1, 2010 to July 1, 2016," accessed May 2017.

[iii]         National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, "National Endowment for the Arts: Arts Investment Fact Sheet," 2017. 

[iv]         U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, "Foundation Giving to Rural Areas in the United States Is Disproportionately Low," 2015.

[v]          National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, "Support for Arts in Rural Communities," 2017; National Endowment for the Arts, Agency Financial Report Fiscal Year 2016.

[vi]         National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, Pennies for Progress: A Decade of Boom for Philanthropy, A Bust for Social Justice, 2016, pp. 2-4.

 [vii]         For information about state arts agency grant making, see National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, "State Arts Agencies Create More Equitable Access to the Arts," 2016; For information about NEA grant making, see National Endowment for the Arts, "Quick Facts," 2016.

 [viii]       Reina Mukai, "Foundation Grants to Arts and Culture, 2014: A One-Year Snapshot," GIA Reader, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Winter 2017), p. 3.

[ix]         Analysis of FY2015 National Endowment for the Arts direct grant awards and state arts agency Final Descriptive Report data for 2016.

 [x]          Alexis Frasz and Holly Sidford, Helicon Collaborative, "How Are Private Funders Responding to Cuts in Public Funding?," GIA Reader, Vol. 22, No. 3 (Fall 2011), p. 15.