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Let markets fund arts and culture

Writing from Miami, Florida

Former Wichita City Council member and present Arts Council chairwoman Joan Cole wrote an article titled “City needs dedicated arts funding” that appeared in the March 16, 2006 Wichita Eagle. This article advocates continued and increased government funding for arts in Wichita.

In her article Mrs. Cole mentions a policy that she seems to approve of: “Moreover, for the first time, performance measures and desired outcomes will be used to assess the progress that these organizations demonstrate.” The organizations are the various groups that will receive funding from the City of Wichita.

I do not know how these performance measures are counted, and I don’t know what outcomes are desired. But I do know this: if the government would stop funding arts, there would be no need for government-mandated performance measures, and the outcomes that occur would be precisely what people really want.

Without government funding, organizations that provide culture and art will have to satisfy their customers by providing products that people really want. That is, products that people are willing to pay for themselves, not what people say they want when someone else is paying the bill. With government funding, these organizations don’t have to face the discipline of the market. They can largely ignore what their customers really want. They can provide what they think their customers want, or, as I suspect is the case, what they believe the people of Wichita should want, if only we were as enlightened as we should be.

Without the discipline of the market, these organizations will never know how their customers truly value their product. The safety net of government funding allows them to escape this reality. We have seen this many times in Wichita and Sedgwick County recently, as organizations fail to generate enough revenue to cover their costs, only to be bailed out by the government. Other businesses learn very quickly what their customers really want — that is, what their customers are willing to pay for — or they go out of business. That’s the profit and loss system. It provides all the feedback we need to determine whether an organization is meeting its customers’ desires.

Some say that without government support there wouldn’t be any arts or museums, and that art shouldn’t be subject to the harsh discipline of markets. Personally, I believe there is little doubt that art improves our lives. If we had more art and music, I feel we would have a better city. But asking government commissions to judge what art we should have is not the way to provide it. Instead, let the people tell us, through the mechanism of markets, what art and culture they really want.

It might turn out that what people want is different than from what Arts Council members believe the people should want. Would that be a surprise? Not to me. Then we could disband the Arts Council and let people decide on their own, without government intervention, how to spend their personal arts budgets on what they really value.

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