Art vs. History, part duex

Last month I pondered the inequity between the support art organizations receive as compared to public history ones. I hope it led some of you to check into what the numbers are in your own state. When I first found out not only was state funding so disparate in Maryland but that the offices overseeing the distribution of that funding were in such different parts of the government, I was surprised and puzzled. Why is the arts council under the auspices of the Department of Business and Economic Development, Division of Tourism, Film and the Arts, when the historical trust is placed in the Office of Planning?

This indicates to me a couple of things. One, that the state recognizes the arts have a place in its overall efforts to encourage business, mostly I think through encouraging film makers to bring their productions to the state. The other is that there is some sort of disconnect between the value of history to tourism and the economy. Here in Maryland, and I wager in your states, we hear a lot about heritage tourism. Those in the tourism industry say people who are mainly interested in historical activities and in visiting historic sites and museums not only spend more money than average tourists, but also stay longer. So wouldn’t it make sense to place the agency representing those sites that are so attractive to tourists under the Division of Tourism as well?

But enough about state funding. What about public perception? After all, we non-profits get most of our money from donations by individuals, memberships and contributions from private foundations and businesses. I’ve brought up the topic of unequal monetary support with colleagues and friends to see what they had to say. In a very unscientific review of the issue, I found that among the general public (those who aren’t in “the business” ) there is little distinction between art museums and history museums – they consider both to belong under the heading “arts & culture.” Unfortunately, in reality the culture in arts & culture rarely includes history.

Among the general public, as well as among my artist friends and art-related non-profit counterparts, the fact that history isn’t at least funded the same as them, if not better, comes as a surprise. I still remember the incredulous look on the face of the executive director of one arts organization to whom I mentioned this disparity. We have all heard of the “starving artist” but “starving public historians” are real but not recognized.

I’ve heard a number of theories as to why the arts are funded, on the whole, at a much higher level than history. Some have said it is the prestige. Getting to go to glitzy galas, hobnobbing with wealthy art collectors, opera aficionados and symphony supporters, help to elevate one’s perception of one’s position in the community. Supporting the arts brings a civilizing effect to the community. I think that might be part of it, but I also think it has a lot to do with money and fame. After all, if you support a theater you never know if one of the actors will become a Hollywood star, if you support a film festival one of those film makers just might be another Steven Spielberg, that starving artist just might be the next Andy Warhol. When did you last hear of a millionaire historian?

I've been making my way in the public history and museum fields for the past couple of decades and hold history degrees from Kent State and Slippery Rock Universities. Currently, I am Director & Chief Curator of the DAR Museum in Washington, DC and, on occasion, I teach museum studies, public history and history courses at Hood College in Frederick, MD.

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