Monday, January 26, 2009

States can benefit from Obama arts surge

I’ve been an arts worker for almost 18 years, both at the Wyoming Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts. "Arts worker" has a nicer ring than "arts administrator" or the one I actually carry around on my business cards, "Individual Artists Program Specialist." I work to ensure that Wyoming artists and arts organizations survive and thrive. I have an affinity for artists because I’m a working writer with a stake in the health of the arts scene. We writers are spending almost as much time unlocking the secrets of "the new publishing paradigm" as we are writing (more about that in future posts).

The U.S. now has a new political paradigm. I worked to elect Pres. Obama not only because he was the best candidate. He also was one of the few with an arts platform. His inaugural celebration featured poetry and lots of music. He had arts advisers during the campaign and, after Nov. 4, a transition team devoted to arts and culture. The Democratic leadership in Congress has included a $50 million boost in National Endowment for the Arts funding in its gigantic stimulus package.

But that’s not just a boost in the NEA budget. Here’s a description from a press release:

On Jan. 15, the U.S. House Democratic leadership released details of an $825 billion economic stimulus package with $275 billion in tax breaks and $550 billion in spending. The proposal includes a $50 million allocation for the National Endowment for the Arts, with the stipulation that 40 percent of such funding be distributed through state and regional arts agencies, the balance to go out in direct grants from the NEA. The proposal further stipulates that all funds must be awarded by September 30, 2010, using existing grant-making procedures.

The specifics of the proposal announced by the Democratic leaders include an unusual statement of accountability attached to the measure, referred to as "an historic level of transparency." Among the safeguards, the measure states: "Public notification of funding must include a description of the investment funded, the purpose, the total cost and why the activity should be funded with recovery dollars. Governors, mayors or others making funding decisions must personally certify that the investment has been fully vetted and is an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars. This will also be placed on the recovery website....There are no earmarks in this package."

So, $20 million of stimulus funding for the arts will go through existing state and local arts agencies’ programs, including those at the Wyoming Arts Council. That’s a real relief, since the NEA has spent the past eight years inventing new programs that we have to find resources for. And the WAC always has more demand for funds that it can fulfill. The stimulus plan will be at least a short-term boost. It goes to a vote in the U.S. House as early as Wednesday. You may want to urge your U.S. rep to support the stimulus package. Wyoming has a new one, Republican Cynthia Lummis. It's time to test her mettle. You can e-mail her here; or phone her at 202-225-2311; or write her at this address.

But what’s the long-term outlook for the arts? An elitist tag has been hung on arts organizations, especially the large institutions such as symphonies and art museums and theatre companies. Artists haven’t helped, spending more time holed up in the academy than being an active member of their communities. Maybe that’s about to shift.

(More arts musings tomorrow)

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