Thursday, February 19, 2009

Ban on Arts Stimulus, Declare Arts Worker Jobs Not “Real”

Folks, we have a lot of work ahead of us in the good ole' USA...

The plot in US politics, in the space of a few short weeks, has gone something like this:

  1. A new Administration could bring new vision to making the arts part of the economy.
  2. Arts spending is wasteful.
  3. Any spending on anything should be specifically prohibited from reaching the arts, as that would be wasteful and evil, and the arts are the best symbol of Waste itself.

As digital musicians and visualists, relevancy to the rest of the people around us is important. What we do can be meaningful to people, and it can pay for our health care and our loved ones and our kids. It’s often not a life or death thing - but then, neither are many jobs. It’s a gig. Heck, even if it’s a hobby, it supports someone else’s gig.

So that raises some really deep questions about what’s going on with our society when arts-related jobs are singled out above nearly every other sector as meaningless or “wasteful” or not “real jobs.” This stimulus bill will pass, but that fundamental misunderstanding isn’t going anywhere - and it’s time to recognize there’s a problem, and start to work to set it right.

Roughly half of one one hundredth of one percent of the US economic stimulus plan was slated to support job protection in the arts — US$50 million. Meanwhile, we’ve just passed one trillion-dollar bailout of finance and are told another trillion is needed.

You might expect anger to be directed at finance, given their industry was at the heart of the problem. Instead, legislators single out — the arts?

In last-minute negotiations in the US Senate, legislators — including key liberal Democrats — have gone still further to ban any use of stimulus funds for the arts (”museums,” “theaters,” and “arts centers” get singled out). The move was largely symbolically-motivated, not fiscally-motivated. Adding insult to injury, arts institutions are lumped together with casinos and golf courses - literally.


Congress Restores Arts Funding, Drops Arts Stimulus Ban, After Public Outcry

Here in the US, Congressional Democrats have reversed not one but both bad decisions on the role of the arts in the economic stimulus package. Provisions that would have blocked any stimulus funds from reaching arts centers, museums, and theaters have been dropped. (Golf courses and casinos are still in the ban. Maybe this time, someone read the actual legislation.) And the US$50 million (out of some $800 billion) that would go to the National Endowment for the Arts, dropped from a Senate version, has been restored to the bill. It appears both of those changes not only cleared the House but are part of the Senate version that’s in votes as I write this.

If you believe artists shouldn’t rely exclusively on government funding, you can still celebrate. The arts will receive far less of a handout than a lot of other industries — and do more with it. Arts advocacy groups estimate that for every dollar of the NEA money, another seven dollars will come from public and private supporters. What the tiny amount of federal spending does is make up for shortfalls in lean times, protecting an arts sphere that depends on a variety of sources for revenue. Nearly 15,000 real jobs could be saved by those same estimates. That means an arts infrastructure in the US that can remain healthy and independent.

But the important story here has nothing to do with the stimulus bill, or even the US. It’s that public outcry from people like you rescued this legislation. And if public support can do that, it can do a lot more for the arts, not only in federal spending but other key areas.

Americans for the Arts says supporters from its organization alone sent some 100,000 messages and letters to their Members of Congress. That’s not counting the many more letters and phone calls from constituents, not to mention letters to the editor and press attention.

Here’s one example from CDM comments, by Dartanyan Brown:

I heard the congressman from Nashville (!) talking down the $50 million for the
National Endowment for the Arts. I immediately called his office and let his
staffers know that (blue dog democrat Cooper) was full of hot air on this issue.
As a synthesist, jazz musician and former NEA artist-in-residence I had the
facts and anecdotes to make my points clear.

If Rush Limbaugh can get his folks to call, we can at least counteract them with some facts and persistence.

Call them, they listen, they respond to numbers.

More background on today’s developments:

To all of you who were active, and to our elected representatives who got this right, thanks.

Targeting the arts in this way may have backfired for those elements seeking to vilify it. Instead, it caused thousands of people to rally to the cause. Here’s an example of organizing meetings in Chicago - and a renewed sense that the arts could be part of the economic solution, not the “costly distraction” so many try to make it out to be.

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