Éditions Gallimard has just published a book by Frédéric Martel entitled De la culture en Amérique that critics say discusses a topic we think we know: “American culture is Hollywood, rock music, Broadway theater, the entertainment industry.” It is a prevailing model that we consume, admire, or reject. According to author Frédéric Martel, a sociologist and former culture attaché to the Embassy of France in Boston, we are on the wrong track.
The result of numerous surveys conducted from New York City to California and from Michigan to Texas, as well as interviews with hundreds of key players, the work profiles the United States’ abundant cultural foundations, not to mention its universities, while painting in broad strokes the history of cultural development in this country from the time of Jefferson to G. W. Bush, and showing how the political elite has ended up supporting the arts, not always willingly.
The author discusses the nuts and bolts of American culture, its structures, and its funding: who gives money, how, how much, and what is the result? This system, which Le Monde notes is largely unknown in Europe, is supported by dutybound charitable donations ranging from 10 dollars to several million, by foundations whose cultural budget sometimes rivals that of certain European countries, and by significant tax exemptions, as well as a long list of government assistance programs and an especially dense university network. All this does not make for a cultural policy but rather a “cultural system” that the author deciphers point by point. He indicates that in the United States, “public funds irrigate culture” discreetly, according to a highly complex system embodied by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), a federal body created in 1965. While the NEA’s 2006 budget is a ridiculously low $125 million, notes the author, the bulk of funding comes from other sources: “The NEA is not a ministry of culture, but rather an agency with a triggering role. It is a tree hiding an enormous forest of government assistance. Nearly 200 federal departments, agencies, and organizations fund culture. So do each of the fifty states as well as cities and counties, even neighborhoods. There is also indirect assistance like taxes disbursed to the arts sector (from automobile stickers in Tennessee, lotteries in Massachusetts) or municipal bonds for the construction of cultural venues ($803 million for New York City alone for 2006–2009). Lastly, an income tax system enables businesses and individuals to deduct donations from their taxes. […] The American cultural policy is largely a tax policy,” he observes.
Public monies invested in culture varies from $26 billion to $50 billion a year, estimates the author, adding that “per capita, the cultural budget in the United States is equal to or greater than that of France.” Furthermore, “as regards private monies, the United States are unbeatable. First, it has a culture of private donations: $13.5 billion each year—roughly four times the budget of France’s ministry of culture. Another several billion dollars are collected by large foundations (Carnegie, Rockefeller, Ford).” And we should not forget the 4,000 universities—whose cultural initiatives are largely unknown—and their 700 museums, 2,300 performing arts centers, 110 publishers, and 3,500 libraries, 65 of which possess over 2.5 million volumes. These universities are also the leading employer of the two million artists documented by the U.S. Department of Labor. The author that no other country in the world does as much for culture, and while the American model is, no doubt, not exportable, its extraordinary flexibility gives it a major edge in today’s rapidly changing world, and in any case we must stop underestimating it.