Saving Federal Arts Funds: Selling Culture as an Economic Force
This is the sort of argument many arts groups say they failed to make strongly enough in the weeks leading up to the first House and Senate votes on the stimulus bill. In debates on the measure some legislators dismissed the arts as a highbrow, left-wing luxury unworthy of scarce taxpayer dollars. Such arguments evoked the ideological battles of the 1990s, when some politicians denounced certain projects financed by the Endowment as un-American.
“I just think putting people to work is more important than putting more art on the wall of some New York City gallery frequented by the elite art community,” Representative Jack Kingston, Republican of Georgia, was quoted as saying in the Congressional Quarterly’s online publication last month. He described arts as “the favorite of the left.” “Call me a sucker for the working man,” he said. (Americans for the Arts later challenged Mr. Kingston’s assertions, saying that as of last year his own Georgia congressional district was home to 778 arts-related businesses employing 2,663 people.)
Kate D. Levin, New York City’s cultural affairs commissioner, said she was perturbed by the nature of the debate. “There were serious disconnects between the reality and the perception of arts and culture,” she said.
“One of the profound things about culture is the amount of indirect employment and spending it generates,” she said. “Even the smallest organization can record the fact that the parking lot down the street and the dry cleaner around the corner and the restaurant nearby all do better when the organization is functioning.”
In arguing for the $50 million in arts money on the House floor on Friday, Mr. 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.”