Government funding of american theater Essay

Government funding of american theaterUnlike other prosperous nations, the United States has a relatively short history of providing government funding for the theater.  Throughout its history, the United States has often shown a degree of antipathy for the arts in general, particularly for the stage, though during the late twentieth century, the federal government has provided millions of dollars’ worth of support.  However, politics have periodically affected this support.

While the United States has only recently favored giving public funds to theater, scholars Milton Cummings and Richard Katz assert that “state support of the arts is now new at all.  Indeed, it is the continuation of a tradition that fostered the flowering of Western culture (Cummings and Katz 3).  Indeed, European and Asian nations have long histories of providing government patronage for the performing arts.  In China, for example, Emperor Ming Huan formed and sponsored a dramatic school known as “the Pear Garden” as early as the eighth century AD, which eventually evolved into the Beijing Opera (Grant 27).

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  In Europe, the Catholic Church (which served as a sort of de facto government for centuries) occasionally paid actors who appeared in ecclesiastical plays, and after the Renaissance, royal courts and independent nobility frequently employed their own small troupes, which performed secular dramas, tragedies, and comedies (Grant 46-48).In the modern era, the French and British royal courts were especially supportive of the theater.  In post-1600 France, playwrights often competed for royal favor and support, among them playwrights Racine and Moliere (Hartnoll 104).  In England, King Henry VII employed a permanent company of five actors, and powerful lords like the Earl of Leicester (long one of Elizabeth I’s favorite courtiers) occasionally provided patronage as well (Grant 54).  Though the strong Calvinist Cromwell protectorate banned theater in England for over a decade, Charles II revived royal sponsorship of the stage, which has received more consistent government support since then (Hartnoll 113).Unlike their British forebears, Americans have long had an ambivalent relationship with theater, and an especially negative one during the colonial era.  During the seventeenth century, popular English appetites for theater competed with the Puritan vision of an England devoid of temptation and frivolity.  According to historian Hugh Rankin, the seventeenth century was “an era when licentiousness and obscenity were considered to be desirable and necessary ingredients for successful drama” (Rankin 2).

  Indeed, the Puritans were openly hostile to theater, deeming it the “bastard of Babylon” and “chapel of Satan” (Rankin 2).  They even passed laws against it, barring it from New England until 1792 (Rankin 190).  In Philadelphia, where the Quakers and Presbyterians embraced a generally more tolerant world view, thought theater too racy for their tastes and barred it from the city, though the colonial governor overrode their efforts to bar it completely from Pennsylvania (Rankin 10).The only places where theater genuinely throve in the Thirteen Colonies were Williamsburg, Virginia, and Charleston, South Carolina – both colonial capitals where the elite planter classes embraced English cultural tastes and built theaters, albeit with private money.

  In Williamsburg in 1718, Governor Alexander Spotswood sponsored a play to commemorate the king’s birthday, arousing some ire from the Virginia Assembly, which claimed Spotswood “lavishes away the Countrys Money contrary to the intent of the Law” (Rankin 14).  Otherwise, theater was a strictly amateur pursuit in British North America, which gave it no public money or even allowed it in all places.The United States inherited much of this antipathy toward theater and even applied it broadly to the notion of government support for the arts.  However, not all early American leaders thought the arts anathema to republican life.  John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson were all interested in the arts (including theater), and in 1789, newly-elected president George Washington urged Congress to “accelerate the progress of art and science; to patronize works of Genius . .

. and to cherish institutions favorable to humanity: (Zeigler 2).Scholar Joseph Zeigler claims that the arts in early America were largely unsupported by a public less interested in aesthetics than in prosperity and defending their new democracy from effete European cultural imports like theater.  He quotes one source’s observation that “if one looks at the whole history of the arts in America, what is most striking  . .

. is the complete divorce between the public and the arts throughout most of our history” (Zeigler 1).However, Congress, failed to act on Washington’s suggestions, mainly because many Americans saw little utility in the fine arts.  According to historian Dick Netzer, “the arts were considered elitist and as such undeserving of direct public support” (Netzer 53).  In addition, some feared that government support of the arts would result in both political dishonesty and mediocre art.  Representative John Page of Virginia claimed in 1792:The encouragement which the general government might give to the fine arts .

. . might, if judiciously applied, redound to the honor of Congress, and the splendor, magnificence and real advantage of the United States; but the wise framers of our Constitution saw that, if Congress had the power of exerting what has been called a royal munificence for these purposes, Congress might, like many royal benefactors, misplace their munificence; might elevate sycophants, and be inattentive to men unfriendly to the views of government. . . .(Goode)Basically, Page anticipated some of the problems that the federal government would have with the theater projects it sponsored in the twentieth century; its patronage of theater would, despite its intentions, penalize critics of government policy.

Throughout the nineteenth century, America’s state and federal governments devoted no public funds to theater or any other art form, in fact spending more energy on censorship than promotion.  Congress assed the nation’s first federal anti-obscenity bill in 1842, partly to curb “licentious” entertainments, thirty-five years before the first bill appeared to propose forming a federal arts council; the latter was soundly defeated by an uninterested Congress (Zeigler 4).Not until the Works Progress Administration’s arts programs of the 1930s did theater receive any government funding, and even then, says Zeigler, “the WPA was not an arts program but a work program. .

. . Extraordinary work may have come out of it, but creativity was not its purpose; jobs were” (Zeigler 6).  Nonetheless, the Federal Theater Project was the first time the United States government provided public funds for the dramatic arts, inspiring later programs to provide theater with government patronage.The government’s patronage of theater had much less to do with promotion of American culture than with the desire to relieve unemployment, which among theater professionals had long been endemic.

  Before 1930, theater in America was relatively scarce, with a small number of professional companies, some experimental theater concentrated at colleges and universities, and local amateur theaters.  Even in large cities like New York, theaters were few in number and poorly funded; according to historian William McDonald, even in the prosperous 1928-29 theater season, New York’s 6,000 actors were employed for an average of only about fifteen weeks per year.  During the Depression, things only worsened; in the particularly meager 1931-32 season, 213 of the New York metropolitan area’s 253 companies were forced to terminate their seasons early due to lack of funds (McDonald 484), and actors, directors, and other personnel were frequently unemployed and lacked legitimate opportunities to practice their professions.Before the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was formed in 1935, a few publicly-funded relief efforts were created to help theater personnel during these lean times.  In 1933, New York’s Civil Works Administration (CWA, a forerunner of the much larger WPA) in suburban Nassau County helped organize the Stage Relief Fund, which paid its personnel forty cents per hour to produce plays for the public, with funds provided by New York’s state board of education (McDonald 487).  During that same year, renowned stage director Antoinette Perry (for whom the Tony Awards are named) appealed to FERA officials for assistance because the Stage Relief Fund was overwhelmed and unable to cope alone.  The CWA responded by allotting $25,000 to theater funding in the New York area; under this informal program, actors on its payroll staged plays in city parks before audiences that numbered as many as 30,000 (McDonald 487-490).Similar projects were created in other cities with sizeable theater communities.

  While CWA and FERA provided works for as many as a thousand actors and technicians in New York City alone, public funds also assisted sixteen companies and 691 employees in Los Angeles, units in San Francisco (including a separate black unit), and Boston (which had black, Jewish, and Italian units under the same aegis) (McDonald 491).  This illustrated the need to provide work relief for stage professionals, whose public performances could be used as a form of public service in order to raise morale and support for the New Deal.The Federal Theater Project (or FTP as it was commonly called) was the successor to these more modest efforts.  When the WPA was created in 1935, it included four arts programs along with its public-works efforts – the Art Project, Music Project, Writers Project, and Theater Project, collectively dubbed “Federal One.”  All had as their mission the promotion of the arts to the population at large, especially the underprivileged.  Like its cohorts, the FTP aimed to employ theater professionals in their chosen areas of expertise instead of as laborers on public-works projects.

At its formation, the FTP was both rife with creativity and leftist sentiment.  WPA director Harry Hopkins allowed it freedom from censorship and appointed Vassar theater professor and veteran director Hallie Flanagan as its director.  Flanagan, known for her innovative approach and tolerance for a broad range of views, took an activist approach and initially gave its units free rein to perform plays they deemed relevant, as long as they had aesthetic value.

  As a result, the FTP produced a wide variety of works over its four-year life, ranging from the classic to the innovative to the outright politically controversial – an approach which both made it creatively fertile and sped its demise.Initially, the FTP began with a budget of $6.7 million (McDonald 513), to be distributed among the thirty-one states that ultimately organized programs.  New York City was treated as a unit separate from the rest of New York State and was allotted half the funds due to its large concentration of theater activity, with California, Illinois, and Massachusetts receiving much of the rest.  Though thirty-five states had initially applied for federal funds for theater projects, McDonald claims that WPA officials’ “lack of sympathy or failure to comprehend the requirements” delayed some state theater projects or else caused their grant applications to be refused (McDonald 514).  Partly because of this (and partly because of their own indifference), FTP projects never existed in the northern plains region, the mountain states (such as Nevada, Utah, And Arizona), and the South (apart from Florida and Texas) (McDonald 523).  Others were eliminated by 1938 if they failed to meet Flanagan’s high artistic expectations.

Salaries for FTP employees matched government salaries and WPA wages of the time.  Flanagan’s annual salary peaked at $7200, while state directors earned between $2400 and $3000 and individual project directors anywhere from $1200 to 2400 annually.  Actors and other personnel, on the other hand, made between $20 and $40 per week, based on their level of experience – wages that matched those of WPA laborers (McDonald 527-528).  The project did not gain much of its operating budget from admission prices, since many attendees of its roughly one thousand monthly performances were admitted free of charge (Adams and Goldbard).  Many of its plays were staged in public places, such as city parks or even the streets, and they were aimed mostly at the urban and rural poor, few of which had previously witnessed any professional theater.  When admission prices were charged, they usually varied between ten and twenty-five cents per seat, occasionally rising as high as one dollar (McDonald 530-31).Federal funding for theater ended almost as quickly as it had begun, primarily because of political concerns.  Franklin Roosevelt’s Republican opponents had never been enthusiastic about any aspect of the New Deal, particularly about the arts funding that they deemed wasteful.

  The 1938 midterm elections had brought a more conservative Congress to power, and several congressmen launched criticisms and inquiries into the content of the FTP’s plays.  81 of the FTP’s 850 productions were specifically criticized in sessions of Congress (Zeigler 8) and conservatives in both parties quickly rallied against the program.  Virginia democrat Clifton Woodrum vowed “to get the government our of the theater business,” while New Jersey Republican J.

Parnell Thomas (a leader in HUAC until he was jailed for corruption) deemed the FTP “a hotbed for Communists” (Larson 15).In New York City, a wing of the FTP called the Living Newspaper presented left-leaning plays which were basically commentaries on current events or individuals, such as Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia, large corporations’ misdeeds, public officials they disliked, or the Roosevelt administration’s own policies.  Though the group had produced controversial material without interference before, WPA director Hopkins intervened in 1938 when they staged Power, a criticism of federal energy policy and a call for public ownership of the nation’s utilities.  After the play was deemed “highly improper” by one conservative congressman, Hopkins banned the play and Congress cut the FTP’s budget as a punitive gesture (McDonald 534-539).  In 1939, Congress appropriated $1.

75 billion for the WPA but stipulated that the FTP receive nothing (Zeigler 8), effectively terminating the project and disbanding all of its units.  McDonald comments, “The Theater Project had achieved at least the honor of a public execution” (McDonald 541), and it revealed the political consequences of staging controversial productions with government funding.            Not until years later did the federal government again appropriate funds for the stage, but when it did, it was for the sake of promoting the arts rather than simply creating jobs in the midst of an economic crisis.  World War II postponed any attempts to commit government funds to theater, and in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Cold War concerns about leftists in the arts revived politicians’ antipathy toward the stage as a potential breeding ground for “un-American” sentiments.  In 1947, New York congressman Jacob Javits tried to revive interest in federal sponsorship for the arts (including theater), claiming that the United States, “almost alone among the great powers” (Larson 44), had failed to foster its creative and performing arts.  Among Javits’ intended beneficiaries was the American National Theater and Academy (ANTA), chartered by Congress in 1935 to encourage and develop theater throughout the nation.

  (Oddly, ANTA was ignored from the outset in favor of the FTP, and it lay dormant for years.)  However, like early American efforts to fund theater, Javits’ attempts came to nothing at the time.            Not until the 1950s did the federal government again provide funding for theater, though this time for strictly political reasons, rather than appreciation of the arts’ role in society.  According to journalist Naima Prevots, “Communist propaganda [charged] that the United States has no culture;” ironically, the federal government (which had revoked the FTP’s funding because it suspected Communist sympathies) gradually began funding the theater in the face of Communist boasts of cultural superiority.  In 1951-52, the Truman administration funded two brief cultural festivals in free West Berlin under the State Department’s authority, and Dwight Eisenhower himself wrote a letter to the House Committee on Appropriations, requesting $5 million for the arts (Prevots).  Theater, however, received only slight consideration, with the bulk of the funds going toward dance (to compete with the Soviet Union’s already well-developed ballet program).            The Kennedy administration proposed federal aid to the arts, but not until Lyndon Johnson’s presidency did the federal government genuinely provide meaningful patronage to theater.

  The National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act of 1965 created both the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), with the former devoted to developing a wide variety of artistic programs and endeavors.  Over the next decade, American theater grew drastically with NEA patronage.  The number of professional theaters in the United States rose from just twenty-three in 1965 to 145 ten years later (Zeigler 28), largely with federal assistance.

The NEA also provided grants for theater projects geared toward the underprivileged.  One, the Laboratory Theater Project (which received $1.35 million over a three-year period), echoed the FTP by providing free performances to inner-city children in Providence, New Orleans, and Los Angeles (Zeigler 21).  The NEA aimed not only to keep theaters financially viable, but also to bring theater to Americans who would otherwise have no access to it.

For the first four years of its existence, the NEA had a relatively modest budget of about $8 million, of which between seven and ten percent has gone to fund theater projects.  This percentage has remained constant, though in real dollar amounts, it rose dramatically during the Nixon administration (ironically, because Nixon was himself indifferent to cultural pursuits like art and theater), when NEA director Nancy Hanks lobbied for and received a tenfold increase in the endowment’s funding.  Between 1969 and Hanks’ retirement in 1977, the NEA’s budget climbed to $82 million (Cummings and Katz 324).            By the late 1970s, the NEA’s theater funding averaged about $9.5 million per year (Henderson 294), but in the 1980s and early ‘90s, politics again threatened its funding.  Aiming to reduce federal spending and influenced in part by the rising Christian right, the Reagan and first Bush administrations cut the NEA’s budget.

  In 1982, Reagan cut the NEA’s budget from $158 million to $143 million (a far smaller cut than the 50 percent total reduction he proposed), with theater’s funding dropping proportionately (Abbey Newsletter).Also, conservative politicians took a more critical stance on the artists the NEA funded, though during the 1980s the agency was not deterred from funding increasingly more controversial avant-garde projects, particularly in the theater.  The NEA’s Theater Program shifted its funding from traditional to more innovative and experimental companies.

  For example, during the 1980s, funding for the ten largest traditional companies fell from 37.7 to 17.9 percent of the total theater budget, while experimental groups’ share rose from  4.2 to 6.

4 percent of the whole (Zeigler 60-61).  As an example, the Yale Repertory Theater’s annual grant declined from $244,000 to only $170,000 between 1978 and 1988, while during the same period, the avant-garde Mabou Mines company’s annual grant rose from $21,000 to $107,000 (Zeigler 61).  This illustrates that even under a conservative president, funding for less traditional theater is not always necessarily reduced.

Though the federal government’s funding for theater changed little during the Reagan and first Bush presidencies, by the mid-1990s the religious right was much more successful at fighting the NEA, even calling for its dismantling.  At the crux of the matter was the work of several avant-garde performance artists (among then Karen Finley, whose overtly sexual and scatological material drew considerable attention).  In 1996, after midterm elections that put a Republican majority in Congress, the NEA budget was dramatically cut from $162 million to only $99 million (National Endowment for the Arts).  Its budget remained below $100 million for the next five years, with theater funding suffering in proportion along with the other art forms supported by the NEA.            Currently, the federal government’s arts funding has rebounded to a degree, with a current NEA budget of $124 million (Wikipedia, “National Endowment for the Arts”), with theater continuing to receive roughly a tenth of that sum.

  Though it may seem to care little about the arts (because there is no official “ministry of culture” like one may find in several European governments) and its budget seems small in comparison to the roughly $9 billion that private charities have given per year since the mid-1990s (Goode), in truth it helps considerably.  According to theater historian Marcy Henderson, “Although in its support of the arts the United States suffers in any superficial comparison with the European countries, the hidden role of our government is generally overlooked . . . [because] the federal government sweetens the pot considerably” (Henderson 294).  Indeed, the federal role in funding theater in America is particularly important, since it has allowed numerous small, non-commercial companies to flourish and continues to function with a relative degree of independence in its selection process, despite the intense political and financial pressures of the late 1990s.Oddly, while the American government has given ample financial support to private theater companies of all sizes and artistic inclinations, the national theater company Congress created in 1935 (ANTA) has gone for much of its history without government support.

  Ignored in favor of the FTP in the 1930s and then dormant until after 1945, it has tried to revive itself several times with little sustained success.  It tried but failed in the 1950s and ‘60s to open and operate a theater school, and it has had no genuine activity or impact outside the New York metropolitan area, despite its creation as a national body (Henderson 296).  Ironically, the government-created theater has survived only because of occasional infusions of private funds, while America’s private theater companies have multiplied and prospered with government assistance.The history of government funding of theatre in the United States attests to Americans’ changing attitudes toward the role of culture.  Though Americans had long felt antipathy toward theater (as an effete and useless manifestation of European culture) and the federal government began offering public patronage to the theater relatively recently (and initially only to alleviate high unemployment), it has since committed itself to promoting theater and expanding its presence, including not only traditional, well-established companies but also smaller, more experimental ones as well.  The results over the last century have attested to theater’s growth and the American public’s increased awareness of it, and the federal government has played a clear role in this process – even if it was initially a reluctant patron.REFERENCESAdams, Don and Arlene Goldbard.

  “New Deal Cultural Programs: Experiments in Cultural Democracy.”  Webster’s World of Cultural Democracy.  1995.  ;;.

Anonymous.  “Federal Theater Project.”  Wikipedia.  2006.  ;;.

________.  “National Endowment for the Arts.”  Wikipedia.  2006.;.________.  “Reagan Asks for Further Cuts in New Arts Budget.”  Abbey Newsletter April 1982.  27 September 2006.


Cummings, Milton C., Jr., and Richard S. Katz, eds.  The Patron State.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.Goode, Stephen.  “Is the curtain dropping on the arts?”  Insight on the News.

  9 March 1995.  27 September 2006.  ;;.Hartnoll, Phyllis.  The Theatre.

  New York: Thames ; Hudson, 1991.Henderson, Marcy C.  Theater in America.  New York: Harry N.

Abrams, 1986.Larson, Gary O.  The Reluctant Patron.  Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983.

Library of Congress.  “The New Deal Stage.”  American Memory.  1999.  ;http://memory.loc.

gov/ammem/fedtp/fthome.html;.National Endowment for the Arts.  A Brief Chronology of Federal Support for the Arts.  Washington DC: National Endowment for the Arts, 2001.Netzer, Dick.  The Subsidized Muse.

  New York: Cambridge University Press, 1978.Prevots, Naima.  “Funding for Dance – Federal Aid to the Arts.”  Dance Magazine.  December 1999.  27 September 2006.  ;;.

Rankin, Hugh F.  The Theatre in Colonial America.  Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1965.Zeigler, Joseph Wesley.  Arts in Crisis.  Chicago: a cappella, 1994.


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