News for North Texas
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

New SMU Study: NEA Grants Do Not Primarily Benefit The Rich

National Endowment for the Arts/Twitter
A new study from SMU challenges the claim that the National Endowment for the Arts tends to benefit the wealthy.

Does the National Endowment for the Arts tend to benefit the wealthy?

Last year, a congressional committee report claimed NEA grants essentially transfer tax money from the poor to the rich. A new study from SMU challenges that claim.

Rep. Paul Ryan grabbed headlines in 2012 when the House budget committee he chairs released a report claiming NEA grants are a "wealth transfer" from the poor to the rich. That report prompted calls to slash the NEA’s $146 million annual budget nearly in half or eliminate it entirely.

But a new study from SMU’s National Center for Arts Research finds that the arts and federal grants are more diverse than we think.

Says Zannie Voss, director of NCAR: There’s an incredible variety in terms of the art that is supported through federal funds that goes outside what we typically think of as ‘high arts and culture.’ "

Voss notes that the original House committee report offered no facts to support its claim. It seems to be based on traditional assumptions that the arts are attended primarily by the wealthy.

In terms of income, grants distributed impartially

So Voss and her team used the center’s database, the largest in the country, to test that assumption. They analyzed which communities receive NEA funding, and which do not.

They found a community’s median household income was not a factor in receiving NEA grants; the grants are distributed impartially as far as income goes.

As for how the wealthy might benefit from NEA grants, NCAR looked at attendance. Presumably, the wealthy have more access to the arts, have more time to attend them. Ergo, NEA grants to arts organizations benefit wealthy communities and the arts organizations that serve them by boosting attendance.

But the study found that wealthy communities don’t necessarily have higher arts attendance (wealthy in this instance is defined as a household annual income of more than $200,000). In fact, arts attendance increases in communities that are more economically diverse. (Some of these seemingly counter-intuitive conclusions were first outlined in an earlier study.)

"Arts are far more democratic"

Voss says that a weakness in using typical "high art" examples, such as symphonies or art museums, to represent the entire cultural spectrum is that cultural organizations include such diverse outlets as science museums, photography galleries, community centers, literacy programs, youth orchestras and children's theater companies.

What's more, the NEA awards grants for such groups to provide badly-needed after-school classes or rehabbing old buildings into performance spaces or developing online access to art. They often do not simply "support the art" -- they often support access to the art, thus helping people who might not be able to attend otherwise.

“My takeaway from it all is that the arts are far more democratic than they are given credit for," Voss says.

Voss says it may fly in the face of popular notions, but the NCAR study concludes that wealthier people receive no greater benefit from NEA grants than poorer people.

Read more on KERA's Art&Seek.

Jerome Weeks is the Art&Seek producer-reporter for KERA. A professional critic for more than two decades, he was the book columnist for The Dallas Morning News for ten years and the paper’s theater critic for ten years before that. His writing has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, Newsday, American Theatre and Men’s Vogue magazines.