The effects of the European debt crisis finally are beginning to hit the arts. Nations that have prided themselves on their cultural institutions are finding out that traditional levels of government funding for them are no longer an option.

In Milan, for example, the world-renowned, 234-year-old La Scala opera house now faces a harrowing $9 million shortfall because of deep cuts in Italy’s arts funding.

Traditions of high taxation also stand to make the problem worse. Even as the Netherlands cuts its national arts budget by 25 percent, it’s also tripling the taxes on tickets to cultural events.

Such sobering realities are unwelcome to those accustomed to massive government subsidies, and many directors of major institutions from Amsterdam to Rome are quietly admitting that European arts organizations are going to have to adopt a funding model more like the one in the United States.

It won’t be easy, though. “There’s no tradition of individual philanthropy in many of these cultures and so they lack both the motivation and the tax incentives to give,” explains the executive producer of the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

In Washington, Congress is currently debating the relatively tiny budget of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Last week, actor Stanley Tucci (not coincidentally a star in the current film smash “The Hunger Games”) testified before a House appropriations committee. He was only the latest in a long line of actors to do so.

Before the NEA even began, Hollywood grandées have flocked to Capitol Hill to pressure Congress for arts funding. One of the first to do so in the 1950s was screen legend Lillian Gish, who’d been in movies since 1912.

Closer to home, the Texas Commission on the Arts is now undergoing a periodic review by the state’s Sunset Advisory Commission. That commission was set up to identify and eliminate waste and inefficiency in government agencies, subjecting them to a thorough exam every 12 years. Last fall, the TCA gave the commission a 63-page report justifying its operations, addressing matters of efficiency, transparency and other concerns.

Questions like “What evidence can you provide that shows the effectiveness and efficiency of this program or function?” are of the sort that usually make arts backers wince with discomfort.

Tucci, in his testimony in Washington, nicely addressed this basic incompatibility.

“Unfortunately, art is not a thing easily defined,” he said. “It is amorphous, interpretive and subjective. If it weren’t, it would be mathematics. Now, imagine us all going to the theater on a Saturday night and watching someone solve mathematical equations for 2 1/2 hours.”

The arts aren’t justly measured the same way other fields of endeavor can be.

In July the Sunset Commission (made up of five members from the Senate, five from the House and two from the public at large) will issue a report with its recommendations. But before then, it will accept public comments on the TCA — preferably by May 1 — which can be submitted via the Sunset Commission’s website.

A public hearing on the report and its findings will come in early September, affording another chance for TCA’s supporters and opponents to weigh in. Based in part on what its members hear from the public, the commission will submit its recommendations to the legislature in January, 2013.

The commission’s website notes ominously that “in most cases, agencies under Sunset review are automatically abolished unless legislation is enacted to continue them.”

Arts supporters in Texas need to follow this closely.

David A. Smith is a senior lecturer in American history at Baylor University and is a member of Cultural Arts of Waco’s board of directors. His website is www.davidasmith.net.

 

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