What do a $1.2 million
decorative rock in Palo Alto, a $185,000
pile of thread balls in Pakistan and a $285,000
"artistic" Morse code display on the side of a California parking garage all have in common?
You paid for them.
This is nothing new. Government agencies spend lavishly on artwork and decoration for their offices, dropping the kind of dollars that would make many private art collectors blush. Although the scandal-plagued Department of Veterans Affairs regularly claims it needs more funding to care for veterans, it somehow didn't think twice about installing the expensive decorative rock and Morse code displays mentioned above. And the State Department billed taxpayers for the six-figure yarn "sculpture."
And that's just the tip of the postmodern iceberg.
The laundry list of eyebrow-raising VA expenditures also in recent years is shocking. According to a report
compiled by the watchdog group "Open the Books," the VA spent a whopping $20 million in taxpayer cash on art since 2006. Much of this spending occurred in recent years, during a period in which many veterans have languished or even died while waiting months or even years
The VA however can't be blamed for the yarn sculpture. That dubious honor belongs to the State Department, which displays the pricey fabric in its 35-acre, $700 million diplomatic compound
Of course, the VA and State Department aren't the only agencies blowing taxpayer money on art. How much our government spends altogether on these non-essentials, however, is unknown.
At a time when agency heads and federal departments regularly complain about their lack of funding, this is a crucial question to answer. House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, recently drafted a letter
to the Obama administration seeking answers. Noting that the federal government owns roughly one quarter of a million buildings, many of which contain existing art or are obtaining new pieces, Rep. Chaffetz expressed concerns about the potential for wasteful spending.
Yet there's a prime example of that very same spending sitting under Rep. Chaffetz's nose. Congress gives tens of millions of tax dollars every year to the National Endowment for the Arts, an agency dedicated to "funding and promoting" art. This endowment has received more than $2 billion in appropriations since 2000
There's dozens of reasons why this is just plain wrong. For starters, it comes at a time when veterans are literally dying as they await the healthcare our country promised them. Families and businesses are shouldering ever-increasing tax burdens with each passing year. Adding insult to injury, our federal deficit grows as Congress routinely punts the responsibility of balancing our budget, settling instead for trillion-dollar spending bills at the eleventh hour.
And even if our economy looked as upbeat and optimistic as a Norman Rockwell painting, dabbling in art just isn't one of our government's appropriate functions. Taxpayers shouldn't be forced to pay for someone else's taste — good or bad though it may seem. If government buildings do need tasteful decorations, there's no reason why they can't be solicited via public contests, or in the form of voluntary donations by the artists.
That's how art has worked throughout the years. Painters, sculptors, writers and other artists have always relied upon those with a genuine appreciation for their work, not to mention the resources to afford it. Using government funds to subsidize artists is a perversion of this, essentially turning taxpayers into a captive audience.
At a time when key government services have to be financed by scraping together every last dollar, art installations in federal buildings should be some of the first expenses sent to the chopping block.
Mac Zimmerman is the director of strategic policy and external affairs at Americans for Prosperity.