In a recent editorial regarding the recently-passed stimulus package, our local newspaper intoned thusly:
"One version of the bill had about $50 million for the National Endowment of the Arts to help cultural institutions. ... Shouldn't that act be about putting back to work the 2.6 million people that the Labor Department says lost their jobs last year? With so many other appropriations in this bill, it's hard to tell.
"For New Yorkers and Pennsylvanians, the $6.5 billion those states are estimated to receive needs to be spent so that people can go back to work or at least keep their jobs."
I don't like to wade into politics here, but I'm going to make an exception. I don't have a problem with discussing the distribution of government (i.e., "our") money and the appropriateness of various types of spending, particularly as it relates to something as large and important as the proposed stimulus package. What I do have a problem with is the perception that spending on "The Arts" is akin to throwing money down a bottomless pit, or that it somehow only benefits the elite .
An Op-Ed piece in the Indianapolis Star spewed this nonsense: "True to form, Congress has loaded the [bill] with hundreds of billions in wasteful spending. The bill includes ... $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts. None of these proposals would create jobs or boost our economy. They're just old-fashioned waste"
Predictably, the National Review chimed in as well: "The National Endowment for the Arts, for example, is in line for $50 million, increasing its total budget by a third. The unemployed can fill their days attending abstract-film festivals and sitar concerts."
I own and operate a small business that makes a substantial portion of my income from this very kind of so-called "wasteful spending". I've produced a DVD and taken photographs that were part of a museum exhibit, I've videotaped interviews that document important parts of our county's history, and I've been hired by government agencies and artists alike to document other arts-related projects from parades to poetry readings.
The Arts are an important part of a vibrant community. My town just spent $17 million on a substantial renovation to a historic Center for the Performing Arts. That money went to contractors, painters, artists, and resulted in a premier theater, one of the finest of its kind in the region or, for that matter, the state. I'm there regularly to videotape performances and shows...all of which pump much-needed money into the local economy.
It's not about "the unemployed attending sitar concerts". That kind of derisive attitude reflects the worst kind of class warfare and arrogance. A culture is largely defined by its ties to its artist community. From cave paintings to Roman Grafitti to Shakespeare's Globe Theater to modern-day Broadway, the arts are an important and integral part of any thriving community.
Again, we can and should have a debate about where we spend precious taxpayer dollars. But let there be no doubt about it: Spending on the arts is not wasted spending. I can honestly say that my business would not exist if it weren't for continued interest in the arts, and I'm grateful that some at least recognize its importance in the larger economy.