Does America Still Need a National Endowment for the Arts? website screenshot
AlamyWith fundraising sites such as Kickstarter, does the U.S. really need a National Endowment for the Arts?
For a government agency that gets about as much funding in a year as Lockheed Martin (LMT) gets paid to build a single jet fighter for the Pentagon, the National Endowment for the Arts sure does catch a lot of flak.

In 2013, the NEA received less than $139 million in funding. That's only a bit more than Lockheed charges for one of its top-of-the-line F-35 stealth fighter jets. And in its nearly 50-year history, the NEA has never received more than $176 million in a single annual budget. That's less than Lockheed used to charge for one of its F-22s.

So what's all the fuss about?

The Argument Against Funding Art

Established in 1965 to provide public funding for arts education, painting, dance, music, literature and other forms of art -- and the museums, theaters and opera houses that show them -- the NEA has been subject to continual attack by congressional budget-cutters since the early 1980s.

Critics of the agency argue that taxpayer funds shouldn't be used to support nonessential activities like the arts. They object particularly to paying for "art" that offends the sensibilities of the taxpayers who pay for it. (Witness the controversies over NEA-funded exhibitions by photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and artist Andres Serrano).

Of course, opinions will always differ on whether public funds should be used to fund private art. Defenders of the practice might even argue that these funds must be available, because art might never be created if it lacks financial support.

But what if we could sidestep all of this controversy? What if there's no need for an NEA at all?

The Solution?: Kicking Government out of Art

As it turns out, artists may not need the NEA anymore. They may be able to attract the funds they need to support their work with crowdfunding. In fact, they're doing this already.

Perry Chen, founder of the crowdfunding website Kickstarter, told The Washington Post earlier this year that since Kickstarter's beginning in 2009, "over $600 million in arts projects" have been funded through his website. %VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%Spread over the five years of Kickstarter's existence, that was close to 80 percent of funds allocated to the NEA.

Indeed, Kickstarter is almost certainly bigger than the NEA today. If you consider "design and video-related" projects to constitute art, then in 2012, artists attracted $323.6 million in funds from Kickstarter. That's more than twice the NEA's $146 million budget for the year. It's money going to projects big -- like Zach Braff's planned 2014 production of "Wish I Was Here," and small -- like the Hip-Hop Word Count database of song lyrics that opened in the Museum of Modern Art in 2011.

What It Means to You

So an argument can be made that with the advent of Kickstarter, there's really no need for the NEA anymore -- that taxpayers should no longer be footing the bill for the agency's multimillion-dollar budget, or paying the salaries of its 100-plus government employees.

Sure, it's true that the NEA has always played a minor role in funding the arts. The Post points out that in 2011, for example, "individuals contributed $13 billion to arts and cultural charities." The NEA's budget amounted to just 1 percent of that. But even so, it's not every artist who can tap that $13 billion stream in private funding. Unless a new artist knows a donor with deep pockets, or otherwise has some kind of "in" with a source of private funds, it's entirely possible that the NEA would offer the best chance of funding.

But now that Kickstarter is here, you really don't need to know anyone to get funding for an arts project. Say you need to raise $10,000 to open an arts exhibition. Rather than find an arts-loving sugar daddy, or butter up Uncle Sam for a government grant, all you need to do today is convince 1,000 of your fellow taxpayers that your idea is good enough to be worth $10 apiece to fund it. That's only 0.0003 percent of the population, and shouldn't be out of the realm of possibility for any halfway decent idea.

Of course, if your "art" is complete and utter dreck, it's still going to be hard to find funding, even through Kickstarter. But then again, that's why people were objecting to the NEA in the first place.

Motley Fool contributor Rich Smith lives too far away to have visited the Kickstarter-funded exhibit at MoMA, but he'll probably go see Zach Braff's new Kickstarter-funded flick. Or at least rent it on Netflix. The Motley Fool owns shares of Lockheed Martin.

Pop Quiz: What Are the Weirdest Things the Government Funds?
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Does America Still Need a National Endowment for the Arts?

A. An interactive game based on Henry David Thoreau's "Walden"
B. "Zombie Yoga," which teaches players to use visualization and yoga to overcome a zombie infection.
C. "Starlight," a massive, multiplayer game that simulates a trip to Mars.
D. "American Adventures," in which users recreate the classic adventures of George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Davey Crockett, and other American heroes.

In addition to spending $50,000 to develop a slate of games, including "Zombie Yoga," the National Endowment of the Arts spent $40,000 developing a Thoreau game -- which an entertainment critic later described as "the most boring idea for a video game ever." Meanwhile, NASA spent $1.5 million on "Starlight" -- its answer to "World of Warcraft."

A. Creating "Robo-squirrel," a robotic rodent developed to study rattlesnakes.
B. Minting pennies
C. Developing a menu for astronauts traveling to Mars
D. Studying the psychology of golf players

While Robo-squirrel ($325,000), astronaut cookery ($947,000), and golf player psychoanalysis ($350,000) all cost a pretty penny, they pale beside the actual costs associated with producing the little copper coins. It costs 2.4 cents to mint every penny (and 11 cents to mint every nickel). To produce this year's penny supply -- with a face value of $50 million -- the federal government will spend $120 million.

A. The USO's "Comedy Oasis" tour of Iraq
B. NASA's "Voyage to the Stars" tour of U.S. schools
C. The State Department's "Make Chai, Not War" tour of India
D. The Commerce Department's "Making Funny Business" tour of American Chambers of Commerce

A seven-city tour across India, "Make Chai, Not War" cost $100,000 and featured three Indian-American comedians poking fun at their lives in America.

A. Greek Yogurt
B. Idaho Caviar
C. New York Potato Chips
D. New Hampshire Beer

The Department of Agriculture and the Department of Commerce are spending $1.3 million to upgrade the infrastructure at a New York industrial park, in return for which Pepsico has agreed to build a Greek yogurt factory there. The government is also spending $750,000 to help Smuttynose beer company build a brewery in New Hampshire, $300,000 to help the Idaho caviar industry get on its feet, and $49,990 to help promote North Fork potato chips, which are made in New York.

A. West Virginia's "Give Your Kinfolk a Ride" program
B. South Carolina's "Arrive Alive" bathroom poster program
C. Michigan's "Wizmark" talking urinal cakes program
D. Boston's "Wicked Free Cabs for Wicked Wasted Guys" program

The Wizmark program's 400 talking urinal cakes loudly encouraged bar patrons to "Call a sober friend or cab" if they were too drunk to drive home. It also pointed out that they should remember to wash their hands.

A. $20,000
B. $30,000
C. $40,000
D. $50,000

Using $30,000 from the National Science Foundation, researchers from the University of Washington and Cornell University determined that students speed-reading faces were about 60 percent accurate in determining the sexual orientation of the person pictured.

A. A $450,000 program to run an Oklahoma airport that gets one flight per month
B. A $97,000 contest for the best 30-second video on the value of fruits and vegetables
C. A $939,771 study of the sex lives of fruit flies
D. A $1.2 million study on the effects that playing "World of Warcraft" has on elderly people

Yes, they're all real!

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