Storm the Culture Ministry!


Via Arts & Letters Daily, François Clemenceau, Washington correspondent for Europe 1, the French national radio network, reviews former French cultural attache Frederic Martel's provocative book De la Culture en Amérique. In it Martel argues that, contrary to popular French opinion, the American model of private arts financing is not such a bad thing. Clemenceau explains:

In his book—and it's a big one in every sense—Martel has done the equivalent of heaving a boulder into the pond of cultural affairs; the waves seem bound to ripple on, quietly for the moment but perhaps with a bigger splash as events play out. Initially, the reaction has been respectful of his work and guarded about its implications. But the questions and pressure for reforms raised in Martel's book seem likely to gain traction under the new government of President Nicolas Sarkozy and perhaps even trigger some re-examination of French cultural dogmas among the Socialist-left.

Working with an eye to the idea of transplanting American techniques to France, Martel describes in detail—thanks to hundreds of interviews—the mainstays of the institutional landscape in the United States. Starting with the history of private patronage and endowments, Martel carefully catalogues public-private partnerships between museums and corporate sponsors. He describes how cultural policies in the United States are totally decentralized thanks to local cooperation between cities and private foundations. He dwells on the theme of how Americans learn about the arts, as performers and as public, from early childhood right through university, from institutions of learning that function on their own without any direction, from a single cultural arbiter laying down a monolithic vision from the top.

As New York Times correspondent Alan Riding wrote last year, what intrigues Martel "is how American culture flourishes despite the indifference or hostility of major government institutions":

And that leads him to the crucial role played by nonprofit foundations, philanthropists, corporate sponsors, universities and community organizations, which in practice do receive indirect government support in the form of tax incentives."If the Culture Ministry is nowhere to be found," he writes, "cultural life is everywhere."

Riding's review is here, Clemenceau's here.

Way back in 1995, reason Editor-in-Chief Nick Gillespie wondered if, "given that gargantuan level of voluntary arts gift-giving" in the U.S., the NEA was necessary at all.