Free Expression in Arts Funding: A Public Policy Report


Research Abstract
Free Expression in Arts Funding: A Public Policy Report

How can arts agencies take a principled position on free expression without alienating their audience or losing their funding? Practical suggestions can be found in this publication, Free Expression in Arts Funding: A Public Policy Report. It surveys free expression policies among state arts agencies and a random sample of local agencies, including interviews with agency officials regarding artistic freedom, funding, and procedures for handling disputes. It contains detailed background on the "culture wars" of the 1990s (and why their significance may have been overstated), and concludes with recommendations for preserving and strengthening artistic freedom in the funding process.

From the Executive Summary:
The question, more than a decade after the attacks on the National Endowment for the Arts began, is whether government arts funding can maintain a commitment to free expression even when some funded works or artists are unconventional, or where political and moral entrepreneurs seek to sensationalize, distort, and drum up political oppostion to provocative art. This report seeks answers to that question by surveying free expression policies among state and local agencies.

After an introduction providing background and analysis of the funding controversies of the 1990s, the survey section of the report begins by identifying language supportive of artistic freedom in state arts agencies' enabling statutes as well as state and local agencies' public pronouncements. But as the survey shows, a statement in support of free expression even without policies to implement it may be ineffectual. Hence, the report goes on to investigate how different agencies interpret their policies; what experiences they have had in implementing them; what, if any procedures are in place for anticipating and handling controversies; and whether ンinstead of supporting free expression ンthey impose any ideological or morality-based restrictions on grantees' work.

The survey reveals that the majority of state arts agencies (and some local ones) have free expression statements, though in many cases they are buried in the state law books, not publicized, and not translated into live policies. A few agencies that announced free expression policies in the 1990s no longer publicize them. The vitality of such policies, and the agencies' commitment to defending them, vary widely, depending on many factors including the political atmosphere in that particular state or locality; the extent to which legislators are likely to seize on symbolic "culture war" issues; and the strength and character of leadership in the funding agency and the local arts community.

Some agencies with free expression policies nevertheless are politically cautious in their grant-making. A few have ambiguous policies that recognize both artistic freedom and the need for political accountability. Yet agencies that have weathered controversy and even experienced cutbacks or ideological restrictions on grantmaking sometimes recoup their losses and emerge from the process stronger than before.

Only a few agencies have official procedures for anticipating and responding to arts funding controversies. Among those who do, philosophies vary, with one agency relying on a crisis manager and "ad hocracy" rather than staff and arts leaders in the community. Whether this is the best strategy is open to question, but it is clear that procedures and preparation are crucially important in setting the terms of the debate and managing it effectively. The report concludes that a strong, savvy leadership, proactive outreach campaigns, good communication with legislators, responsiveness to the media, and a refusal to compromise on basic principles are keys to defending free expression in government arts funding.


  • Create a free expression policy, or dust off one that is already on the books.
  • Undertake educational campaigns about artistic freedom. Involve the community.
  • Create opportunities for non-polarizing dialogue about controversial art.
  • Anticipate and prepare for controversies ンif necessary, months in advance ンthrough education and outreach.
  • Build alliances both within and outside the arts community.
  • Keep legislators and others in the power structure informed. Invite them to openings, and thank them for coming.
  • Have procedures in place for handling controversies, including a media communications plan.

Executive Summary
     Why We Undertook this Survey.
     How We Conducted the Research.

I. Background.
        Challenges to Free Expression in Arts Funding: From Serrano and 
        Mapplethorpe to the "Decency and Respect" Law.
        The Politics of Arts Funding: Accountability and Free Expression.
        State and Local Arts Funding.
             The Growth of State and Local Agencies.
             Four Controversies of the 1990s 
                 Cobb County, Georgia. 
                 Charlotte/Mecklenburg, North Carolina.
                 San Antonio/Esperanza.
                 The Brooklyn Museum and Sensation.

II. Free Expression Policies Among State and Local Arts Agencies.
         State Laws Recognizing Artistic Freedom.
         State and Local Agency Policies Relating to Artistic Freedom.
              States Policies That Reinforce Statutory Language.
              States That Shy Away From Explicit Free-Expression Policies.
              States That Promote Artistic Freedom Absent Specific Statutory Language.
              Local Policies.
         Policies Limiting Artistic Freedom.

III. Experiences with Free Expression Policies and Procedures for Handling
          How Have Free Expression Policies Fared in Practice?
          Procedures for Anticipating and Handilng Controversy.

Appendix A: State Agencies
Appendix B: Sample of 104 Local Agencies.


Free Expression Policy Project
70 p.
December, 2002

Free Expression Policy Project
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New York
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