MENTION governmental support of the arts in the United States and everyone thinks of grants for Mapplethorpe or sexually explicit performance artists. But the real issue is aiding the arts at a time of fewer dollars.
The main source of federal help, the National Endowment for the Arts, has a smaller budget than it did in 1980, and the total for the combined budgets of the 50 state arts agencies is 25 percent less than it was five years ago.
In comparison, corporate funding for the arts, which reached a high of $700 million in the early 1980s, is down 30 percent. Costs, of course, haven't gone down.
When arts agencies spread less money to the same number of artists and arts groups, it only pauperizes the arts. It causes inefficiency and leads to lower quality. For the nonprofit sector of the art world - the museums, touring dance and theater companies, symphonies, arts-in-the-schools programs, and a host of smaller groups - the news is not good.
During the recent decline of support for the arts, the ``solution'' has been to lobby and promote letter-writing campaigns to legislators calling for an end to budget cuts. Some even ask for increased funding.
Arts advocates find themselves in the uncomfortable position of explaining why the arts agency budget should be protected when so many social services (for homeless, welfare recipients, the sick) are facing reductions. Must arts supporters turn a blind eye to the world, or become advocates for tax increases?
Governmental arts agencies need a different approach. The artists, arts organizations, and institutions that survive and prosper will be those that become more entrepreneurial and consider how to earn money rather than simply applying for it. There is a tremendous need to provide more information and business or career skills in order for individuals and organizations to swim and not sink.
Arts agencies at all levels must be reconceived as entities that help individuals, groups, and institutions in a variety of ways. Grantmaking is only one approach, albeit an important one.
The broad bureaucratic term for this other kind of help is ``technical assistance,'' which means nonfinancial aid. Technical assistance sometimes means information, sometimes other types of support. The cultural affairs departments of New York and Atlanta, for instance, both have programs that solicit local businesses for any excess supplies or items that they are upgrading (air conditioners, computers, film, furniture, power tools, vehicles and so on). These products are then made available free to arts groups.
One also sees that the state arts agencies of Connecticut, Maine, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Vermont, as well as the arts councils of New Orleans and Buffalo and Erie County, N.Y., find local lawyers who will provide free or heavily discounted legal advice to artists and groups in the region.
Similarly, the arts council of greater New Haven, Conn., organizes business volunteers to help local arts groups improve their management and accounting practices.
Unfortunately, these activities are few and far between. When a state or local arts agency holds an information workshop, the focus is usually how to apply for a grant. These agencies are not changing with the times. Partly, they refuse to recognize the times. Also, giving out money makes agency staff feel like kingmakers - whereas helping individuals and groups to help themselves empowers those artists and arts organizations.
As a first step, state and regional arts agencies should create resource centers, where regular career and management counseling, as well as legal and business advice, are available. Programs that already help individuals and organizations - generally provided by small, nonprofit groups with severe money problems of their own - can be consolidated and expanded within these centers.
ARTS agencies should also establish relationships with businesses to foster programs for exchanging materials and to develop a roster of companies that might be willing to donate services to arts groups.
Again, this activity could all be housed within arts resource centers.
Agencies should also work with schools for performing and visual arts to set up ``survival courses'' and career workshops. It is the failure of these schools to tell their students anything about what the world and market is like that leads to much of the poverty in the arts in the first place. Schools, in fact, could be excellent settings for the resource centers, limiting the costs of setting up and running them.
As artists and arts organizations become more knowledgeable, more self-sufficient and better managed, there will be less pressure on the arts agencies to pay for everything.
Moving away from the help-everyone-limp-along philosophy of making small grants to many groups, they can begin targeting their funding activities to programs that bring the arts to more of the public. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.