After the U.S. House and Senate pored over his proposed economic stimulus bill, urging him to justify and compromise almost every dollar he proposed to spend, President Barack Obama secured passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, complete with a surprising $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts.
When I got all fired up to write this editorial, the Senate had just voted to cut all arts spending from President Obama's proposed measure, and although I was annoyed and disappointed, I was not surprised.
In any public funding situation, when cuts need to be made, the arts are almost always the first to go. This tragedy is most readily evident in public schools, from elementary to university.
I'm not sure why lawmakers seem to have no regard for the arts, especially considering the relationship between creativity and learning, how engaging the right side of one's brain has been proven to have positive effects in the learning and retention of knowledge.
I interviewed Janis Walker and Judy Ward of the Philbrook Museum of Art recently, and they shared with me the story of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, which opened in 1999 in North Adams, Mass., an industrial city that has struggled economically.
In 1986, business and political leaders of that city decided to open a museum, and the Massachusetts Legislature got on board, promising more than $8 million for the project. Shortly thereafter, the city of North Adams went through a substantial economic upheaval, but the state maintained its support of the museum, and it is now credited with the revitalization of the city.
When Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) tried to cut the arts spending from the stimulus bill, writing an amendment that stated, "None of the amounts appropriated or otherwise made available by this Act may be used for any casino or other gambling establishment, aquarium, zoo, golf course, swimming pool, stadium, community park, museum, theater, art center, and highway beautification project," and the Senate approved his amendment 73-24, I asked some of my sources in the arts industry here what they thought of the new development.
One of my favorite answers, one I thought was extremely well phrased, came from Nancy Hermann, marketing director for the Tulsa Performing Arts Center, who said, "Arts funding is not a show of charitable support, but business stimulus.
"We all know that the arts generate other spending. Also, the arts are vital to a city to attract quality workers. Companies look to grow their businesses in cities where they know they can retain a workforce. I've had an employment placement company call me to inquire about the level of arts Tulsa has to offer. The company was trying to attract doctors to our hospitals.
"For people who don't know much about Tulsa and picture us as a wasteland in the middle of nowhere, it is great to be able to demonstrate that we are home to a world-renowned ballet, a fabulous opera with a 61-year history of excellence, one of the few remaining Town Hall-type lecture series, two orchestras and a wealth of theater."
Julia Kirt, executive director of the Oklahoma Visual Arts Coalition, wrote on OVAC's blog (ovac.blogspot.com), "Arts organizations, museums, and artists are a part of the nations' economy, no less important than many projects to create jobs!"
Luckily, the stimulus bill ultimately passed Congress with its arts funding included. The bill stipulates that the funding go toward grants and activities "which preserve jobs in the nonprofit arts sector threatened by declines in philanthropic and other support during the current economic downturn."
Forty percent of the amount will go to state arts agencies and regional arts organizations ("in a manner similar to the agency's current practice") and the remainder will be dispersed in competitive grants from the NEA. Matching requirements for such grants are waived.
House and Senate negotiators dropped the language prohibiting funds from going to galleries, theaters and museums, but kept that which prevented them from going to zoos, casinos, aquariums, golf courses and swimming pools.
I know there are some who believe that arts funding is just another step toward a "big brother" government. I have a hard time understanding this notion, since I don't think government could get any bigger than it did when George W. Bush was in office.
President Obama is not trying to impede anyone's freedom by granting some money to support the arts, or by championing this $789 billion stimulus plan.
The plan is meant to aid the country in recovery from near economic disaster. It's meant to rescue businesses so they can continue operating and keep the economy in motion. Arts are a business. The arts create and sustain jobs, and they are (or should be) as important to any thriving city or community as its schools and hospitals. And the government should also see the arts as vital.
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