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Column Wed May 06 2009

State Stays Stingy While Artists Reel from Recession

The arts have been brutally hit by this severe economic downturn. The creative sector of the economy is caught in a double-bind. It's suffering from lower revenues like many industries, because consumers treat art as discretionary spending rather than a necessity. But arts also have taken a hit because, in recessionary times, private donors, who provide up to 40% of arts funding, tend to scale back their generosity more for arts than for, say, a soup kitchen. Government, too, has been yanking back its dollars.

The result has been that artists are losing jobs fast and furiously. The National Endowment for the Arts ("NEA") estimated that roughly 129,000 U.S. artists were unemployed during the fourth quarter of 2008, a rate twice that of other professional workers. Unemployment in the arts is also growing faster than in other sectors - many artists are simply calling it quits. In the fourth quarter of 2008, the national artist workforce shrank by 74,000 workers.

Yet hardship to this sector has been missed by many mainstream media and politicians. On Feb. 9, 2009, the U.S. Senate voted 73-24 to bar "museums, theaters, and art centers" from receiving any stimulus package funds, to "ensure that taxpayer money is not lost on wasteful and nonstimulative projects."

This spawned furious lobbying by the arts community. The House Education and Labor Committee chaired by Rep. George Miller (D-CA) held a webcast hearing "to examine how the economy is affecting jobs in the arts and music industries, and the role these industries play in communities across the country."

Ultimately, $50 million was restored to the package, to be administered through the NEA. An additional $10M was allocated in the subsequent spending bill.

These is not a large amount, seeing as each week seems to present a new trillion being thrown around in D.C. It averages to $1 million a state, and in the first round of grants announced, Illinois got $361,000, in one lump sum to the Illinois Arts Council - about 3 cents per Illinois resident.

Starving the arts makes little sense because art is important, not just culturally, but economically. According to the Illinois Arts Alliance, nonprofit arts and cultural organizations in Chicago alone gross over $1 billion, support over 30,000 jobs, and generate over $100 million in Illinois, county, and City taxes. Chicago, of course, is not the sole locus of arts in Illinois; Americans for the Arts counts a total of 23,643 creative enterprises in Illinois, employing 132,882 people.

Advocates say that sustaining this cultural infrastructure depends on some government help. "For our arts sector here in Illinois to really be healthy in the long term, [the stimulus assistance] is a good first step, but it is critical for state funding to be restored," said Scarlett Swerdlow, advocacy and communications director for the Illinois Arts Alliance.

In the recently-released fiscal 2010 budget for Illinois, Gov. Pat Quinn kept the Illinois Arts Council's budget at the $15.2 million it received in FY2009, which represented an unprecedented 23 percent slashing by Gov. Blagojevich from the previous year's levels. Last year's cuts forced the Council to trim back support grants to artists by nearly 30 percent.

Just a few years ago, in FY2000, the funding for the Council was at $21.9 million, which would be $27.5 million in inflation-adjusted 2009 dollars. The IAA contends that the Council needs $24 million "to sustain the cultural infrastructure of Illinois."

One problem is public perception of the arts' funding-worthiness. The higher tier is what tends to make the society pages: opera, museums, the ballet, the symphony. These high-visibility outlets, while appreciated by many, lack broad appeal to many more, and are vulnerable to criticism as a form of trickle-down, filtered through folks in tuxedos and evening gowns at the Kennedy Center. This stereotype allows fiscal or broad-spectrum conservatives to play the arts off against, say, homeless shelters and HIV-sufferer clinics. The opera is a frequent target of arts-funding-cuts stories.

However, as is obvious from the raw jobs numbers, the bulk of those employed in the arts, while not starving, survive at modest levels. That means that arts stimulus is efficient stimulus, because for the typical arts worker, spending a high proportion of his or her income on necessities, government money goes rapidly back into the economy. Funding for a "starving artist" is more likely than funding for an engineering consulting firm to quickly help out a struggling neighborhood retailer, and thus preserve small stores, jobs, and homes. Art also has payback by smoothing society: because it's linked to urban design, public art can reduce crime or increase use of mass transit.

The arts will also be of increasing importance in a economy that, when we come out of our current turmoils, by necessity will be a little more post-consumerist. You can compose a poem or write a song without strip-mining a mountain or applying petrochemicals to a field, and ideas travel lighter than hard goods. A corollary of our societal dedication to decreased emphasis on material consumption will be increased emphasis on intellectual power, and on the exchange of ideas, passions, emotions, and experiences. The Internet will be an important part of this, but lower-tech platforms may surge as well, from sand painting to puppet shows.

I'd also argue that it's important not to forget the "pure" value of art funding, that is, art for art's sake. Regardless of what it does for the economy, art has value simply in making us think better or feel better. As former NEA chair Bill Ivey observed, the vibrancy of our cultural environment is "a marker of quality of life in a democracy." Or, as a 1970s T-shirt put it, paraphrasing Emma Goldman, "If I can't dance, I don't want to be in your revolution."

As I write this, the Illinois legislature is debating the budget. For those wishing to contact their state senators or state representatives about arts funding, the Illinois Arts Alliance has set up a handy form.

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anon / May 7, 2009 1:02 PM

"because consumers treat art as discretionary spending rather than a necessity"

and then

"arts will also be of increasing importance in a economy that, when we come out of our current turmoils, by necessity will be a little more post-consumerist."

So something that is currently viewed as non-essential and discretionarily driven will suddenly become an important focus when peoples' economic decisions will no longer be based on consumerism (i.e. discretionary spending). Right.

You might as well just come out in the open and ask for a bailout - they're in vogue right now. However, it'd be the same argument as bailing out the auto industry based on the potential negative impact of its supply chain churning to a halt.

You can't escape economics.

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