The Public More Private, the Private More Public

The following essay by Cher Krause Knight is part of “Beyond Survival: Public Support for the Arts and Humanities,” a call  for reflections on and provocation about the precarious state of arts funding after decades of neoliberal economics and the long culture wars.

Although the NEA and NEH’s most recent survival might comfort us, this reprieve is tenuous at best. Like many, I was relieved when the proposed 15 percent cut ($23 million to each; Trump actually wanted to “scrap both agencies”) for the 2019 budget was defeated. The cut was introduced in an amendment put forth by Representative Glenn Grothman (Republican, Wisconsin), who maintains arts funding is not a federal responsibility but rather the obligation of “private organizations or local government.”1 While I vehemently disagree that our federal government should not invest in the arts, Grothman points to future funding strategies we need to embrace for art not only to survive but thrive.

Combining public and private resources exposes ambitious projects to widely constituted audiences, as evidenced since Reagan-era neoconservatives began harshly scrutinizing the NEA (another administration that suggested eliminating both agencies). While ensuing abolishment efforts have not yet succeeded, many of us recognize that the NEA is “a shadow of its formerly robust self.”2 We should continually advocate for its survival, but we cannot depend upon it as a primary funding source. Thus drawing upon the shared interests of private and public sectors to jointly support art is not only crucial, but also perhaps inevitable. This observation is not new, but I want to underscore the urgency to foreground public-private partnerships more than ever before. In New York City, local government and nonprofit organizations such as the Public Art Fund (PAF) frequently collaborate to produce artworks that engage diverse audiences, stimulate the regional economy, and (re)invigorate both well-known and overlooked places.

Ironically such partnerships make the public more private, while simultaneously making the private more public. Regional governments and nonprofits pool their collective resources to support often highly individualistic artistic and curatorial visions. The resulting works are shared with audiences that otherwise may not be exposed to, as characterized by PAF, “dynamic contemporary art…of international scope and impact.”3 Consider Tatzu Nishi’s wildly popular installation Discovering Columbus (2012), for which PAF cooperated with New York City’s Department of Parks and Recreation to conserve Gaetano Russo’s nineteenth-century monument Christopher Columbus.4 The city “improved” Columbus Circle in 2005, but the site was further enhanced by the monument’s subsequent conservation. In turn the monument was revamped not only physically, but contextually—problematized as the centerpiece of Nishi’s compelling installation. Here the artist built a spectacular perch from which visitors (who obtained free timed tickets) could view the monument up-close. After climbing high above street level, they gained entrance to a swanky living room that both enveloped Columbus and provocatively collapsed the distance between public place and private enclave.

In Boston art funding tensions are explicit. Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker (Republican) vetoed a proposed $2 million increase to arts and cultural budgeting for 2019, but the Senate unanimously voted to override his veto; meanwhile, the city recently committed to percent-for-arts funding under Mayor Marty Walsh (Democrat). Boston’s Now+There (N+T), a nonprofit dedicated to temporary public artworks (disclosure: I serve on its advisory board), is a few years old but flourishing. Executive Director Kate Gilbert asserts that N+T cannot rely upon grants or donors alone, advocating for a more entrepreneurial approach and “a blended portfolio.”5 Composite resources—including philanthropic donations from individuals and foundations, and partnerships with other organizations, corporate developers and the city—have brought artists such as Paul Ramirez Jonas and Liz Glynn to Boston, as well as supporting the work of local artists. (Gilbert sees crowdfunding and fee-for-service models being of increasing importance, too.) It is hard work that follows a winding path, which often veers into challenging and rich territory. But we must remain wary of the compromises and trade-offs such terrain may require if we are to protect the public from being in servitude to the private.

Professor of Art History at Emerson College, Cher Krause Knight is focused upon modern and contemporary art and architecture. She is a specialist in public art and museum studies.

The next response in the Beyond Neoliberalism chapter is “Collective Arrangements” by Mimi Thi Nguyen.

  1. The House Overwhelmingly Rejects a Republican Proposal to Slash Funding for the NEA and NEH,” Artnet News, July 18, 2018, at
  2. Cher Krause Knight, Public Art: Theory, Practice and Populism (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2008): 18–19.
  3. Public Art Fund, “Mission,” at
  4. Public Art Fund, “Tatzu Nishi: Discovering Columbus,” at
  5. Kate Gilbert, interview with the author, July 30, 2018.