Culture is future » Financing and economic models


Obama and cultural policy : mission impossible?

An American twist. As further public funding cuts were announced for FY 2014, president Obama declared a 10% increase for the federal cultural budget. Happy ending or too little, too late?

A presidential couple engaged in the arts. As of 2008, the Obamas asserted their position as advocates for arts and culture.  In 2009, Michelle Obama, Honorary Chairman of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, stated: « the arts are not just nice things (…), they define who we are as people ».  The same year, her husband claimed to « use the bully pulpit… to promote the importance of arts and arts education in America (…) because the arts help to promote the economic development of countless communities ». Five years later, Obama proposes a 10% raise for his 2013-2014 humanities and culture budget plan, one of the most anticipated commitments to the arts during the president’s second term. Yet, what is the cost of such a decision?

A double-edged decision. While in France culture is principally funded by the public sector (7.4 billion euros in 2013), the American federal budget allotted to culture for 2014 has been placed at a mere 1.51 billion USD (an increase from 1.44 billion USD in 2013). Public funds thus represent 7% of the national arts and culture budget in the United States. Obama’s 10% increase for FY 2014 is surprising – given austere budget sequestration policies fixed post-fiscal cliff – yet it is also accompanied by a cap on itemized tax deductions decreasing the tax returns for charitable donations from 39.8% to 28%, hence a 10% decrease. What the state gives with one hand, it takes with the other … establishing a potential disincentive for philanthropic manna that contributed 13 billion USD to arts and culture in 2011. According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, this fiscal measure could lead to a 5 billion USD drop in arts funding. 

Unevenly distributed funds. Public funds are principally divided between three grant-making federal institutions, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), Humanities (NEH), and the Institute of Museums and Library Services (IMLS). These agencies then allot grants to cultural organizations such as the Smithsonian Institution, the Kennedy Center, and the National Gallery of Arts. In 2014, some of the agencies will benefit from non-negligible budget increases (between 5.8% and 11%), while others anticipate budget cuts of 7.5%.

Unfulfilled needs. The collateral effects of the budget deficit during Obama’s first term have taken a serious toll on numerous cultural institutions, following the decisions made in the 2009 American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, issuing a paltry 75 million USD to the NEA and the Smithsonian Institute, out of the 840 billion USD stimulus package. Furthermore, during FY 2011 and FY 2012, the NEA, along with other grand-making agencies, saw their budget decrease 11.2%. It was only in 2013 that these cultural budgets were increased by 5%, leaving the previous cutbacks uncompensated. 

Is Obama’s commitment in 2014 bold enough? The general consensus asserts that this tardy measure is commendable, yet not sufficient to benefit the 100, 000 non-profit arts organizations in the US who would require at least a budget twice as large to function properly, making their futures uncertain. For the years following Obama’s FY 2014 decisions - the impact of which will need to be closely measured - will the incumbent president be able to defend a coherent cultural policy, that he himself has identified as an essential factor for economic reconstruction? We can only ‘hope’.


Madeleine Planeix-Crocker et Alice de Saint-Pierre