Opera funding — public or private?

(Maria Callas in I Puritani)

Over at CafeHayek, Russell Roberts has a post on how opera companies and audiences are burgeoning in the U.S. He quoted from an article in The American about this phenomenon and asked the question — how reliant are opera companies on government funding?

It turns out that government funding represents about 5 or 6 percent of total U.S. opera companies’ funding, according to The American. For the arts in general, that amount is about 12 percent. The rest is from private sources — individuals, foundations, and corporations.

The National Endowment for the Arts breaks down those private funding sources:

Americans donated approximately $13.5 billion to the category “Arts, Culture, and the Humanities” in 2005, the most recent year for which such data are available. In per capita terms, the total amounts to about $45 for each individual in the United States. Individual donors account for about three-quarters of the total, with foundations and corporations providing the balance.

Kevin Smith, the head of Minnesota Opera, seems to think that private funding makes more sense, as he said to The American:

Despite the attraction of government money, Smith believes that there is something “healthy about needing to prove yourself to the community on a daily basis.” He says, “Tough as it is, the American system is good in a lot of ways. In France, they have seven or eight companies that get all the money. If you’re not year-round and fully professional, you don’t get any support. Here, it’s a grassroots system, and you have to demonstrate your value.”

There are other problems with government funding too — political ones. The big grants are likely to go to those with political connections or political savvy. Here’s an article that, while supporting government funding of the arts, points out how political decisions are made about what to fund in the Big Apple.

While the increased popularity of opera in the U.S. can be attributed to a lot of factors, it is encouraging that the growth seems to be mainly supported by private means. That way individual taste helps shape what you’ll see or hear — through buying tickets, subscribing, or donating small or large sums. And it means that opera companies, like other entities, have to prove themselves in the market.