I'm lucky, I admit it. I live in one of the great art capitals of the world, New York City. And I happen to like art. A lot.
Just yesterday, as I blundered my way to work in downtown Manhattan, I espied the grand statues depicting the New World and the Old World, carved by David Chester French, whose famed seated Abe adorns the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. A little further on, there was the winged fiber-optic sculpture by Clyde Linds, called America Song, memorializing the 15,000 African Americans who died as slaves and whose bodies were buried in a graveyard now covered over by Broadway and the massive edifices of various federal buildings. And in front of my own building, rebuilt over the wreckage of the September 11 terrorist attacks, there's a playful Jeff Koons sculpture, which looks like a giant red balloon tied into a fanciful flower shape.
These pieces all have something in common: They are unofficially designated small business contracts, in the form of commissions from the federal government to the artists who produced the work. Oh wait. You mean artists are small business owners, too? Yes, they are. Typically sole proprietors, they can also employ people who work in their studios and help them craft their commissions. And they depend on scores of other small businesses who supply them with materials and services.
But artists are often given short shrift in our public life. And that's not a good thing, because the arts connect us to our history, provide valuable commentary, and can help transform society in ways large and small, every day.
I was reminded of the vital role that public dollars have supporting the arts when I wrote recently about the Small Business Administration's annual contracting scorecard.
The scorecard analyzes how much money actually winds up going to small business owners from the federal procurements available to them each year. In 2013, the federal government exceeded its goal of 23 percent in 2013, and in a lot of really important categories like disadvantaged business owners and veteran business owners, it exceeded goals. (In several categories, including women-owned businesses, goals were not met.)
Still, when you dig further into the small business federal contracting data, you certainly get a sense of national priorities--and art's not one of them. Of the $223 billion contracting dollars available to small business owners in 2014, the Department of Defense tops the list, with potential contracts worth $125 billion for small companies. The Department of Energy has contracts worth $22 billion, and the Department of Education has a much smaller budget, $2 billion.
Way down on the list are contracts for businesses from the various federal programs that support the arts, such as the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. All told, these represent a scant $25 million. At the very bottom of the list is something called the Commission for Fine Arts, which is chartered to advise Congress and the president on all aesthetic matters related to the nation's capital, including all of its memorials. Small businesses were eligible for a whopping $18,000 worth of contracts there.
I called the General Services Asssociation, which oversees contracting opportunities from the federal government, to find out more.
It turns out that the artists themselves are supported through a separate contracting program called Art In Architecture. The program was created in 1949, and since 1971 it has set aside 0.5 percent of federal building contstruction costs to art. In those four decades, the program has commissioned 400 works of art nationally. According to a statement from the GSA, small businesses are the prime beneficiary of the program:
Today, GSA Art in Architecture commissions support small businesses and stimulate local economies. The creation of these artworks sustains many private-sector jobs, through the various sub-contractors hired by project artists. In most cases, 80 percent of the GSA art budgets are spent on materials, fabrication, shipping and installation costs for the artworks, which support the vendors who provide the raw materials (such as metals, stone, wood, glass, resins, etc.) and skilled labor for these projects. The 20 percent design fee typically received by the project artists themselves is used to operate their studios, which are small businesses that often employ several assistants.
Less than a quarter of the GSA's budgeted art money goes to the artists themselves, which would have totalled something like $20 million in 2013. That's the annual revenue individually of quite a few of our Inc. 5000 companies for the same year. And for a nation as rich our ours, it's just a drop in the bucket of our total spend.
I don't have to do anything more than go outside my building, which is at the heart of Ground Zero, to see kids giggling at the way the Jeff Koon's sculpture spits back a funhouse image of their reflections to understand how art can transform a space of incalculable horror into one of remembrance, and even joy.