Monday, February 16, 2009

Twists and turns in arts-funding story

In the Feb. 15 New York Times, reporter Robin Pogrebin chronicled the odd story of how the $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts managed to stay in Pres. Obama’s economic recovery bill. Not a pretty story, but it does illustrate some of the horse-trading that goes on in Congress. And the importance of government funding for the arts.

Here are excerpts of the story interspersed with my commentary based on 17-plus years as an arts worker, including a two-year stint at the NEA:

There was a whiplash quality to the action surrounding the arts money. As the week wore on, things weren’t looking good. Although a House version of the bill had included the $50 million, the Senate version approved no arts money at all. The Senate even voted 73 to 24 on Feb. 6 for an amendment ruling out stimulus money for museums, arts centers and theaters. And some conservative Republicans had denounced the arts as bonbons for a leftist elite with no place in an emergency stimulus bill.

The challenge for culture boosters in Congress was to convince a House-Senate conference committee that the arts provide jobs as other industries do, while also encouraging tourism and spending in general.

"We had the facts on our side," said Representative Louise M. Slaughter, a New York Democrat who is co-chairwoman of the Congressional Arts Caucus. "If we’re trying to stimulate the economy, and get money into the Treasury, nothing does that better than art."

A 2007 Americans for the Arts report, Arts & Economic Prosperity III: The Economic Impact of Nonprofit Arts and Culture Organizations and Their Audiences, contained the following economic stats:

Nationally, the nonprofit arts and culture industry generates $166.2 billion in economic activity every year -- 63.1 billion in spending by organizations and an additional $103.1 billion in event-related spending by their audiences. It included 5.7 million full-time equivalent jobs, $104.2 billion in household income, $7.9 billion in local government tax revenues, $9.1 billion in state government tax revenues and $12.6 billion in federal income tax revenues.

That's a lot of simoleons. Big numbers cause Congress to sit up and listen. It also helps that arts supporters were contacting their reps and senators. People like you and me and our close personal friend, Robert Redford.

In his conversation last week with Ms. Pelosi, a California Democrat, [Robert] Redford said he drew on his film experience to argue for the arts as an economic engine. "Ticket takers or electricians or actors — all the people connected with the arts are at risk just like everybody else is," he said in an interview. He said he also reminded Ms. Pelosi that his Sundance Film Festival brings more than $60 million to Park City, Utah, each year.

You have to wonder why Utah's entire D.C. delegation voted against the stimulus bill. Sen. Hatch has not always been a friend to the arts, but he's had his moments. Sen. Bennett is a longtime arts supporter. But both are Republicans. They were only taking orders from their leadership, as were Wyoming's Sen. Enzi and Sen. Barrasso.

Did you know that Utah has the nation's oldest arts council? That's a fact. Arts are huge in the state, especially in Salt Lake City, with its symphony and ballet companies and Mormon Tabernacle Choir and public art programs and museums and... The list goes on and on. And earlier this year, the Utah Arts Council got rid of its folklorists as it faced budget cuts. One would think the stimulus funds for highways and airports and building renovation would have appealed to Utah's delegation. After all, you need all those things so people can get to the arts.

As the details of the final bill were being hammered out, tens of thousands of arts advocates around the country were calling and e-mailing legislators... The tide turned. In addition to preserving the $50 million allocation, the final bill eliminated part of the Senate amendment that would have excluded museums, theaters and arts centers from any recovery money.

That Senate amendment, proposed by Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, had grouped museums, theaters and arts centers with implied frivolities like casinos and golf courses.

During debates on the bill, some Republicans had labeled the arts "highbrow" and "a luxury" that was populated with leftist artists and arts supporters. It was reminiscent of the so-called "Culture Wars" of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when a few NEA-funded projects casued an uproar and became a rallying cry for Jerry Falweel, Pat Robertson, and his fellow travelers in the Religious Right.

But even that battle had shades of gray. The NEA's budget was cut in half following Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America" and Republican victory in the 1994 elections. Newwt got his way and almost all of the fellowship programs for individual artists were eliminated. All but the ones in creative writing, as various high-profile writers and Hollywood types appealed to Mr. Gingrich's vision of himself as a writer. He is a writer, of speculative fiction and history. So the creative writing fellowships were spared on the turn of an artistic ego and a few well-placed words.

Here's a few final words from the NYT article:

In arguing for the $50 million in arts money on the House floor on Friday, Rep. Obey made similar points. Arts workers, he said, have 12.5 percent unemployment: "Are you suggesting that somehow if you work in that field, it isn’t real when you lose your job, your mortgage or your health insurance? We’re trying to treat people who work in the arts the same way as anybody else.

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