The Art of Inequality

Thomas Campbell directs the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan. He’s smiling a great deal these days. Why? Campbell has just received something museum directors only dream about: a donation of paintings, drawings, and sculptures worth over $1 billion.

The donor: cosmetics magnate Leonard Lauder. His gift? Seventy-eight masterpieces, including 33 Picassos and dozens of works by other prominent members of the Cubist movement.

Forbes estimates Lauder’s overall net worth at more than $8 billion. He’s been donating hefty chunks of these billions to the art world for some time now. In 2008 alone, Lauder gave $131 million to New York’s Whitney Museum.

Navy Hale Keiki School/Flickr

Navy Hale Keiki School/Flickr

Philanthropy this bold thrills apologists for inequality. Immense concentrations of private wealth, these cheerleaders for grand fortune claim, enrich our civilization’s culture.

“The rich make life more interesting,” the prominent business editor William Davis gushed in the early 1980s.

“Being rich doesn’t make you evil,” a New York Post editorial proclaimed after the new Lauder gift. “And the accumulation of wealth can enrich others — in countless ways.”

Subjecting the rich to “millionaire taxes” meant to “share the wealth,” the editorial board fumed, only discourages gifts as generous as Lauder’s.

In reality, we’re seeing precious little wealth-sharing. The Lauder family and their fellow billionaires have watched tax rates on their incomes plummet. And the resulting squeeze on the public purse is having a substantial — and troubling — artistic impact, especially in America’s schools.

In New York City, as one local arts group relates, budget cuts have painted a “grim picture for arts education.” Nearly a quarter of the city’s schools have no certified arts instructor.

New York hardly stands alone. In Los Angeles, an arts activist noted last fall, more than half the city’s elementary-age kids are getting no exposure to arts instruction. In Detroit, 60 percent of schools “lack art education as part of the curriculum.”

Nationwide, the same pattern. The U.S. Department of Education reported last spring that 4 million elementary school students are going without visual arts instruction. Adds Dan Domenech, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators: “We haven’t hit bottom yet.”

The “top” for arts education came back in America’s share-the-wealth golden age in the mid-20th century, the years when America’s wealthiest faced federal income tax rates as high as 91 percent, over double the top current rate.

In 1960, lawmakers in Albany okayed the creation of the New York State Council on the Arts. Five years later, Congress established the National Endowment of the Arts. The federal government became, for the first time ever, a major player in arts funding. In community after community, federal dollars began leveraging a vital partnership of nonprofits and public agencies. The arts flourished.

We can’t, of course, totally blame the demise of this golden age on shrinking billionaire top-bracket tax rates. Other factors have been at play, most particularly the rising pressure on school systems to narrow the curriculum to subjects that lend themselves to endless rounds of standardized testing.

But who’s bankrolling this intensely market-driven approach to education that has no patience for “frills” like art? America’s billionaires, through the vast network of think tanks and foundations they’ve so lavishly underwritten.

So let’s keep in mind what really happens to the arts when we let wealth concentrate. Museums get paintings from the awesomely affluent. These donors get plaques in the museums attesting to their generosity — and lucrative deductions on their tax returns.

And the rest of us? We pay our $25 admission to enter museums like New York’s Met as art education fades away from our schools.

OtherWords columnist Sam Pizzigati is an Institute for Policy Studies associate fellow. His latest book is The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class. OtherWords.org