Friday, December 11, 2009

New Arts Attack by Coburn and McCain

This past Wednesday Senators Tom Coburn and John McCain issued a new report purporting to identify 100 projects funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) that they feel raise questions about the effective use of these funds. This report has been covered in the media (see this Wall Street Journal story) and once again has raised the point - why is investing in the arts as part of recovery somehow considered to be, by its very nature, inappropriate? 

The list includes a number of arts projects funded by the NEA's stimulus grant program as well as other ARRA categories. A quick overview of the arts related projects on the McCain/Coburn list: $225K for Shakespeare theatre festivals in several different communities. $100k to "Anti-Capitalist, Socially-Conscious Puppet Shows (which includes $25K to Philadelphia's Spiral Q Puppet Theatre). What they define as "Clown Theatrical Production" - actually our own Philadelphia-based Pig Iron Theatre Company which got a $25,000 NEA stimulus grant. $13k to a public art piece in Fort Smith AK. $400k for "Jazz Festivals" (also through the NEA, including the Monterey Jazz Festival. Another work of public art in Washington State. A horse museum in Lexington KY. A storytelling festival in Utah. A dance troupe that has trained its dancers to do weatherization work and got a grant for this purpose ($935k). $2.6 million to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science for a geothermal project that seems to be presented as frivolous because they actually have money in the bank and hosted a President Obama's signing  ceremony for the stimulus bill.

I am sure there is legitimate questioning that can be engaged in about how stimulus funds are being spent, and that in the rush to get funds out quickly with a bewildering array of programs and criteria, there may be some questionable investments. BUT embedded in this list are a few very disturbing assumptions. First, the list seems to indicate that arts-related stimulus investment are somehow by their very nature inappropriate. An arts job is somehow not a "real job." The fact that an arts festival or program may attract significant tourism and ancillary expenditures thus magnifying the impact of the stimulus, seems irrelevant, or even - worse - somehow suspicious. Arts projects that can superficially be made to sound suspect because of their name or the nature of their work ("Pig Iron," "puppetry", "Shakespeare Festivals") especially get singled out. The fact that an arts group may have an endowment or be in the black (see the Denver Museum example) would somehow seem to make it subject to derision.

The Pig Iron grant retained a critical staff-person and helped support an internationally-recognized theatre group whose last production "Welcome to Yuba City" attracted huge audiences and was a virtual sell-out: employing many artists, technical and management staff and stimulating the economy in the Northern Liberties neighborhood where the production took place. Similar story with Spiral Q - NEA $ helped retain their production manager position, which if not retained would have resulted not just in a lost job, but a 50% reduction in their program capacity and services to children, magnifying the loss.

This morning Tom Kaiden of Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance went on Fox News to respond to this report, and I am sure this is not the last we have heard of this (as much as I would hope so). You can view the video clip here. The Cultural Alliance staff, working with input from many sources, including Americans for the Arts, has put together great background information to respond to these allegations, and I am sure will be glad to make it available to anyone who gets questions about this from the media, donors, etc.

I suppose it can't be repeated enough: An arts job is a job just like construction or retail or manufacturing. Investment in the arts as part of the stimulus bill is a minuscule share of stimulus spending, and a thoroughly appropriate component. Arts stimulus spending is actually one of the BEST investments we can make - the arts money is getting out into the community creating or saving jobs relatively fast (compare to other stimulus spending), the money for the most part stays local (no outsourcing in the arts), and there is an unusually high multiplier effect with arts spending, due to the related visitor/audience spending. Artists and those who work in the arts are voting, tax-paying citizens, whose kids go to the local schools, who buy their groceries in the local supermarket, who pay their mortgage, just like anyone else.


  1. Well said. The Monterey Jazz Festival generates 25-30 million dollars in the local economy each year, which supports hotels and their workers, resturants and their workers, etc. All the taxes on the money spent goes to the city, which then uses it for other city and county projects, which stimulate other jobs. The assumption that support of the arts have no place in society is just plain wrong.

  2. Anyone who doubts the economic engine the arts provide, should come to Philadelphia when there's a special exhibit at the Art Museum. Philadelphia also has a number of excellent art schools, including Tyler, PAFA, Moore and the U of A. Just toting up the amount of money these students pay each year in tuition, rents, equipment and supplies purchases, etc., would give another indication. Comcast is a content provider - in other words, a place where you can find art. It goes on and on.

  3. In 1975 the country was in an awful financial mess; the government sponsored and funded CETA program was an effective way to stimulate the economy. Artists, educators and others were given a salary ($7,500 per year) to either act, or teach, or contribute in some way to the civil society. Many theater companies and arts groups were founded through CETA money and yours truly was able to teach, tutor and practice the piano at Kingsborough Community College for the year or two that I was in the program. I worked, felt good about myself, practiced and paid taxes - and my daughter was born in 1976.

  4. As a workforce development specialist for youth, a former educator and current partner in a digital record label and production company, I want to scream from the rooftops when I hear this kind of nonsense. People erroneously continue to equate the word "arts" with "hobby". A United Nations Report published in 2008, states that “…creativity, knowledge and access to information are increasingly recognized as powerful engines driving economic growth and promoting development in a globalizing world.” The sooner we expand our definition of the word arts to include jobs and job creation, the sooner we move back on to the path of being global leaders in innovation. Innovation cannot exist without creativity, creativity cannot thrive without investment in the arts.

  5. Thanks to all your thoughtful comments on this blog post. Clearly this is an issue that just won't go away: this nagging suspicion elements of our society have about anything arts or cultural in nature, that it somehow is frivolous or even subversive. As the most recent comment highlights, this is now frankly about our economic competitiveness as a nation. We continue to equate creative endeavors with "waste" at our peril.