This is a writing blog, not a political blog, but sometimes the two intersect. The Economic Stimulus Bill passed by the House of Representatives included a meager $50 million out of $819 billion for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). This amount was cut from the Senate version that, according to recent reports, passed this afternoon (Feb 10) by a vote of 61-37. For those of you needing a refresher course in Government 101, the bill will now go to conference where a compromise will need to be reached between the House and the Senate versions. However, I'm predicting that arts funding is not likely to end up in the final version.
Unfortunately, for far too many in this country, both in and out of government, arts funding is seen as "wasteful" spending. The stimulus package is supposed to get the economy back on track and put hundreds of thousands of unemployed back to work, and in the US we don't see art as employment worthy of income.
As a writer I've come to expect that I won't make a penny from what I do. I've come to terms with that and that even well-known writers are now teaching in writing programs across the country to make enough to live on. I expect that those creating visual art will also have to teach in schools or hold down second or third, non-creative jobs to get by, but the Act as passed by the senate stipulates that no amounts will be made available for, among other things, museums, theaters, or art centers.
I imagine there are not many, even among the low income, who don't frequent some of these places now and again. Schools take children on visits to natural history museums or interactive science museums. Many of us visit special exhibits at art museums. Tonight I am going to see a performance of my local theater company to which I have subscribed for 25 years and which provides outreach programs to local schools. We always expect that these things will be there when we want them. More important, many cities rely on their museums and theaters to attract tourists and bring people in from the suburbs to spend money. Yet we also expect that these institutions will be paid for, in the majority, by private funds––rich donors and foundations. We even grumble at those solicitations at dinner time or through the mail, always begging for a few more dollars, yet we never stop and think why these organizations need to do this. Certainly fundraising isn't what they do best or even what they want to do.
Some may have forgotten or may not know that it wasn't always like this. As First Lady Jackie Kennedy was a great supporter of the arts. More apropos, the highest point of spending on the arts was during The Great Depression. Not only do we need more art when our hearts and wallets are low, but the lack of disposable income shows up first in donations to nonprofits. There are people in the arts who have lost their jobs too, but I guess they don't count as "real" jobs since these folks accepted long ago that they would barely make a living wage.
This is not just a matter of immediate needs, it's a reflection of what we value as a culture. It is over the last 30 years that funding for the arts has dwindled so drastically. Art often holds a mirror to our society, and I can't help but wonder if we are just afraid to see what we have become.
If you want arts funding back in the stimulus bill, visit Americans for the Arts.