Saving Federal Arts Funds: Selling Culture as an Economic Force
Feb. 16, 2009, New York Times — One would be hard pressed to argue that a call from Robert Redford to the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, helped salvage money for the arts in the economic-stimulus bill last week.
But it certainly didn’t hurt as arts-friendly members of the House and Senate struggled to preserve $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts in the final version of the recovery package, approved by both houses on Friday.
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.”
In his conversation last week with Ms. Pelosi, a California Democrat, Mr. 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.
Among the legislators pushing the conference committee to include the arts money were Ms. Pelosi; Representative Norm Dicks, Democrat of Washington, chairman of the House Interior Appropriations and the Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, which oversees the arts endowment; Representative David R. Obey, Democrat of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and a member of the conference committee; and Ms. Slaughter, who as chairwoman of the Rules Committee has clout over amendments.
Mr. Dicks said Ms. Slaughter was a crucial gatekeeper. “She gets a big ‘atta boy,’ ” he said. “She stopped a bad thing from happening.”
“We all worked it together,” he added, “pointing out how much job creation occurs with these arts organizations all over the country. We worked kind of behind the scenes.”
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. Arts groups also organized an advertising blitz arguing that culture contributes 6 million jobs and $30 billion in tax revenue and $166 billion in annual economic impact.
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.
“It’s a huge victory for the arts in America,” said Robert L. Lynch, the president of Americans for the Arts, a lobbying group. “It’s a signal that maybe there is after all more understanding of the value of creativity in the 21st-century economy.”
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.
Adding to arts groups’ consternation, the amendment had gained the vote of Senate Democrats like Charles E. Schumer of New York and Dianne Feinstein of California, who usually support cultural initiatives.
Arts groups feared that they had been abandoned by their Washington friends, and that they would be shut out of the recovery entirely. Asked about her vote after the amendment’s passage on Feb. 6, Ms. Feinstein said through a spokesman that she was still “a strong supporter of the arts” but felt that the stimulus bill “should invest in critical national infrastructure.”
Senator Schumer said he had been unaware that the amendment ruled out money for museums and theaters.
(In the final language approved on Friday, casinos and golf courses remain ineligible for stimulus funds, as are zoos, aquariums and swimming pools.)
The extra $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts is a significant boost for the agency, whose annual budget, without the additional money, was $145 million. The bill calls for 40 percent of the new money to be distributed by formula to state arts agencies and regional arts organizations. The remaining 60 percent will be set aside for individual arts projects competing for Endowment grants.
President Obama has yet to appoint a successor to Dana Gioia, who served as the Endowment’s chairman until last month. But Patrice Walker Powell, the Endowment’s deputy chairwoman for states, regions and local arts agencies, who has been serving as interim chairwoman since Feb. 2, praised Congress for entrusting the stimulus money to her agency.
“It’s a great opportunity for the cultural work force to be dignified as part of the American work force,” she said in an interview.
Of course $50 million is too meager a sum to rescue major arts groups, even as flailing institutions like the Detroit Institute of Arts reel from budget cuts. Arts executives with worried constituent groups are in many cases philosophical and say they expect the stimulus money to be spread widely.
“I hope the maximum amount of the $50 million finds its way into the pockets of artists and those who support them,” said Reynold Levy, president of Lincoln Center. “An employed dancer is as important as an employed construction worker. His or her family has many needs, owns a home, buys a car and makes an impact on the economy.”
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.”
The $50 million will only go so far, but cultural groups heralded the survival of the Endowment money as a big step forward.
“It’s a tremendous validation of the role of artists as an economic and a spiritual force,” said Ed Harsh, president of Meet the Composer, a nonprofit group devoted to the creation of new musical work in America.