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On Public Arts Funding, David Koch Lives With Contradictions

By Alyssa Rosenberg on June 6, 2011 at 10:23 am

"On Public Arts Funding, David Koch Lives With Contradictions"

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David and Julia Koch in front of the theater that bears his name. The New York City Opera has decided that making its home there is too expensive.

This week starts a countdown to a really unfortunate event in the arts: on Friday, the Kansas Arts Commission will cease to exist, making Kansas the only state without an arts agency, the commission members will be out of a job, and Kansas arts organizations will be looking for a new form of seed funding and programmatic support.

I mention it again not just because of that deadline, which I think is worth marking, but because I was poking around trying to see if there was a common backer behind the move in several states to entirely eliminate arts agencies. And unsurprisingly, the Kansas chapter of Americans for Prosperity, the Koch-funded political action group, is a big fan of eliminating the KAC and trusting private giving to take care of the arts. Similarly, Americans For Prosperity was quite happy to see Gov. Bob McDonnell veto what he said was Virginia public broadcasting funds—though what he actually cut was money for educational program development that’s shared across Virginia school districts as a cost-savings measure. None this is evidence that AFP is the source of the bills, and AFP chapters in a number of states, including South Carolina, where arts commissions are facing total elimination have been silent on this specific issue while pushing for budget cuts more generally.

But AFP’s positions on government arts funding, where it’s taken them, is particularly ironic given the Koch family’s recent experience in this field. David Koch, of course, is a noted lover of the arts, particularly opera—in 2008, he gave $100 million to renovate the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center, home of the New York City Ballet and the New York City Opera. That donation was, of course, keeping in practice with the principles for arts funding laid out by Derrick Sontag, the Kansas State Director for Americans for Prosperity, in a recent statement insisting that the demise of the Arts Commission was no big deal, and that private donations would easily fill the gap.

“Art is in the eye of the beholder. Some may enjoy Picasso or listening to Beethoven. Others may prefer a Dogs Playing Poker painting,” he said. “Such organizations already rely on private funding; they are effective at seeking it and they’ll still have help.”

All well and good, right? Except, of course, the fact that despite generous private support like Mr. Koch’s, the Opera’s relied on support from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, the New York State Council on the Arts, and National Endowment for the Arts to put on both its 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 seasons. Ditto for the New York City Ballet. And last month, the City Opera announced it was leaving the theater Koch renovated for them—the operating costs of staying there were simply too high to be sustainable, the Opera’s general manager told the New York Times.

It’s hard to live up to your principles all of the time, especially on something that’s dear to your heart, so I can see why Koch would compromise the political framework that organizations he’s funded are supporting when it comes to his passion. He clearly didn’t make giving up government funding a condition of his generous gift to the Lincoln Center. But in a tough economic climate, I wonder if he can see the value of having groups like the NEA and the state arts commission do peer review on projects, and then providing small amounts of funding as a way to validate them and stimulate private giving? And if more government funding would stimulate the private donations that could keep the Opera at Lincoln Center, I wonder if Koch would consider it a worthwhile compromise?

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