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Paul Ryan Says Only the Rich Enjoy the Arts. A New Study Just Proved Him Wrong.

The National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities have been near the top of congressional Republicans’ hit list for years: I wrote recently about Senator Jeff Sessions’ apoplectic response to the news that the NEH was funding inquiry into “the meaning of life.” But during recent budget debates, the criticisms leveled at the agency have seemed, on their face, disarmingly fair. Last year, Representative Paul Ryan charged that the agencies’ fruits were “generally enjoyed by people of higher-income levels, making them a wealth transfer from poorer to wealthier citizens.”

The authors of a new study, released Wednesday, took Ryan’s accusation seriously. The National Center for Arts Research at Southern Methodist University analyzed data to address the claim that the NEA serves the rich and not the poor. (The SMU center does not receive federal funding, although the New York Times notes that it relied on the government endowments for some of its data.)

Their finding: Nope.

The first half of the study asks whether NEA grants show a “bias towards arts organizations in wealthier communities.” As it turns out, arts organizations that receive federal funding tend to serve economically diverse areas. The study contrasts NEA grantees to other arts organizations and finds that the former usually operate out of cities and towns with a higher share of both residents below the poverty line and those with household incomes exceeding $200,000 a year. In other words, the NEA seems inclined to focus its resources on metro areas that encompass a broad socioeconomic range, not homogenous, well-to-do communities.

The study also takes a stab at the underlying question: “Do the arts—and therefore government funding for the arts—constitute an allocation of disproportionate benefits to the wealthy?” But the data suggest that arts audiences are far more diverse than Ryan—or I—would have expected. The researchers found no correlation between a community’s median income and arts attendance. Rather, “attendance at arts organizations increases as the percentages of both wealthy households and households below the poverty line increase.” This may be a cycle determined by access: Big, economically diverse cities attract more art, and more NEA funding.

The biggest win for the NEA: The numbers suggest its dollars are encouraging arts attendance across the economic spectrum. Free attendance shoots up in communities where it gives a grant, from an average of 16,0001 patrons to 40,931, and per capita attendance nearly doubles, from 2.3 percent to 4.4 percent.

The study does not argue that the arts are need-blind—anyone who has paid for a ticket at Lincoln Center knows that isn’t true. But it does show that, far from being “a wealth transfer from poorer to wealthier citizens,” federal funding for the arts guarantees that when you erect a theater in a mixed-income community, the seats don’t all go to the one percent.