Funding the Arts and Sciences: Why? How? How much?

Artists and scientific researchers working in the United States are arguably the most productive in the world. Who supports their creative endeavors, and why? What are the various funding mechanisms? How much do taxpayers expend for the arts and sciences through the federal, state, and municipal governments? What are the arguments for and against public funding for these activities?

Join us at the JMuse Café on Thursday evening, November 10, when we’ll explore these and other questions.  Our guest speakers will be Dr. Anca Constantin of the JMU Department of Physics and Astronomy and Dr. Dennis Beck of the JMU School of Theatre and Dance.

Each JMuse Café event is held from 7:00 until 8:30 PM in the third-floor Flex Space of the East Campus Library. Events are free and open to the public, and light refreshments are provided.  Because seating is limited, advance online registration is required at You can reserve your space beginning one week prior to the event; registration closes at noon on the day of the event.


Background Briefing

Let’s take a moment to paint the landscape in broad brush strokes without taking any time here to define “the arts” and “the sciences.” The arts and the sciences in this country have very different histories which are reflected both in our language and in the Federal Budget.  The two-word descriptor “starving artist” is familiar to most of us, but the descriptor “starving scientist” may have just now had its first use.

Why? The National Science Foundation was established in 1950 with the mission “To promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; and to secure the national defense.” The National Foundation for the Arts and Humanities (the forerunner to the NEA and the NEH) was established in 1965. The NEA is “dedicated to supporting excellence in the arts, both new and established; bringing the arts to all Americans; and providing leadership in arts education”. The NEH mission is “promoting excellence in the humanities and conveying the lessons of history to all Americans.”

How Much? Here are some numbers from the 2010 Federal Budget, which totaled $3,552 billion (just under $11,500 per capita)

NSF received $6.9 billion, about $22 per capita

NEH received $171 million, about 55 cents per capita

NEA received $161 million, about 52 cents per capita

→  NSF received about 20 times as much direct Federal funding as NEH and NEA combined. The total for all three agencies is about 2 thousandths of the budget.

How? Taken by themselves, these widely disparate numbers oversimplify the situation. There are federal agencies other than NSF (such as the NASA and the National Institutes of Health) which have even larger budgets and which also fund much scientific research. On the other hand, the direct Federal funding of the arts is a small fraction of support for the arts: there are scores of charitable foundations, such as the Carnegie Corporation and the Mellon Foundation, which collectively provide much more arts funding than the federal government directly.  (The government subsidizes these indirectly because donors to these organizations receive tax deductions for their donations.)


Guest Speakers’ Abstract

 Anca Constantin and Dennis Beck consider arguments for and against public funding of the arts.  How will activities which have historically advanced supported by patronage of various kinds to continue to develop in systems in which commercial viability or immediate results receive priority?  Who should fund such activities?  Should they be supported at least in part through public means?  In a period of economic contraction, where in the list of economic priorities should the arts and the sciences fall?  What, ultimately, is the value of the sciences and of the arts? Constantin and Beck consider, debate, and discuss the similarities and differences between the arts and sciences regarding issues of funding, cultural perception, instrumental and intrinsic value, and the role of universities like JMU in the ongoing struggles to find the sources from which to fund projects that artists and scientists view as worthy but that sections of the public and politicians may not.