As the national debate over public funding for the arts continues, local arts organizations are bracing themselves for a season of discontent. Their lives may well be in the hands of a few individuals who have not yet decided how to cast their legislative votes. Some of those members of Congress called the arts frivolous and government funding for the arts inappropriate, especially during difficult economic times. Many will say that the money is better spent creating jobs, reducing the national deficit, and assisting the economic recovery. As usual, in a world hungry for black and white solutions to gray issues, the debate has taken on the quality of an un-artful cubist painting with contrasting hues of “either-or” and “us and them.”
The National Endowment for the Arts’ budget of roughly $160 million is less than many of the infamous pork-barrel projects funded by Congress and certainly much less than funding budgeted for economic stimuli in many areas of the economy. Ironically, given the outcry over funding for the arts, this comparatively insignificant amount is itself an economic stimulus package. According to the arts advocacy nonprofit Americans for the Arts, artistic and cultural organizations (nonprofits) in the United States contribute more than $160 billion to the economy annually and employ almost six million people. That means that the economic stimulus provided by the N.E.A. results in a tenfold contribution to the national bottom line, and that’s on top of the impact of the six million tax-paying citizens currently employed in the arts. If all government subsidies and stimulus schemes has a similar effect, who wouldn’t be a staunch supporter? It is easy for spin and rhetoric to confound the discussion, but facts do tend to clarify things. In this case, cutting off our cultural nose would spite our economic face.
The either-or approach is frivolous—and dangerous—and there is another danger! As a nation, we have succumbed to the temptation to distill the issue of arts funding down to “us and them”—those who wouldn’t fund and those who would. The players on this stage are conservative or liberal, Democrat or Republican. Be careful, though—the cast of characters is much more complex than one might think. There are real thinkers on both sides with opinions and ideas worth listening to if we can get the demagogues to quiet down for a bit. Consider for a moment that Republican President Richard Nixon, for all of his faults, significantly increased funding for the N.E.A. His support of the arts—and environmental issues—went against the grain of his party then and certainly would so today. Perhaps he is just an old exception to the rule. Maybe.
I have the privilege of being the music director of the Peoria Symphony Orchestra in Illinois. This is Reagan country—conservative, Republican. And yet, the orchestra, 114 years old, has a board and staff dedicated to its mission and future. The members of the board are not a conclave of exceptions. They are successful businesspeople, doctors, and community leaders who are pretty much in the mainstream of the political spectrum for central Illinois. Like their counterparts in more liberal-leaning communities, they are concerned about the N.E.A. and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and what the demise of these agencies might mean to the P.S.O. Methodically and courageously, they discuss funding possibilities and strategies to overcome this loss, hoping they will not have to put them into effect. Additionally, Peorians have elected one of the youngest members of Congress and the youngest-ever member of the House Ways and Means Committee, Aaron Schock, who is 29. Why is this worth mentioning? Because Aaron Schock is fighting to preserve N.E.A. funding—and he’s a Republican.
I first met Congressman Schock at an arts event in Peoria. He started his speech by saying that when he was in college, he was a season ticketholder to the symphony and that his public school music teacher still performs in the P.S.O. He went on to say that he intended to educate and convince his colleagues in Congress about the importance of the arts. At a subsequent lunch I had with him, he told me the amount of money budgeted for the N.E.A. is so small in comparison with the entire federal budget that cutting it would achieve very little in terms of reducing the deficit. The overall impact on communities across the country would be great, however. From Peoria to Cleveland to New York, arts organizations take those relatively small N.E.A. grants and turn them into cultural and economic gold. Many will survive without this meager handout, but at what cost? One less educational initiative, one less family concert, no more lessons? Or, perhaps 10 less jobs here, 20 there? It adds up—plus, if those artists aren’t working, they’re not paying local, state, or federal taxes, which then makes it necessary to cut more. Certainly Schock and other members of the Peoria community do not see these issues as “either-or” or “us and them.” It is a courageous stand they are taking, and I can imagine that Schock gets some grief from his Congressional colleagues about his position—yet he publicly supports the arts.
There is plenty of evidence showing the benefit that the arts provide to a healthy, thriving community. If we keep our minds open and our intellectual integrity intact, we can keep the discussion nuanced and inclusive. The arts may be “frivolous” to those who build bridges to nowhere, but we need to prevent them from trivializing the debate. Spanning the bridge between now and our cultural-economic future is no small matter.