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From the Chairman
It may be art but is it stimulus? There has been a lot of press about the arts lately. Some articles focus on the funding difficulties facing nonprofits in the current economic environment, others on the dwindling number of nonprofits and the resulting loss of art opportunities for children and society. Still others discuss whether the arts—and public support—are stimulative. There is no shortage of opinions on these subjects, and, in this letter, I am unlikely to advance a new point of view or persuade readers to a point of view that they didn’t already share.
However, I would like to argue for intellectual honesty in the discussion. Is spending on the arts stimulative? What, after all, is stimulus?
It would seem that building a bridge—even one to nowhere—is a clear stimulus: resources are purchased, and wages are paid. These dollars flow from the government to various parties and then stimulate the economy with a “velocity” that is either more or less “stimulative” than other forms of public expenditure. I suspect that everyone can agree on that definition of stimulus, though it appears that “stimulus” becomes “pork” once it is located in a particular congressional district. This is an example of the failure of intellectual honesty.
During the stimulus plan debate, there was discussion about stimulus dollars for the arts. No doubt one or more organizations asked you to write to your congressman to support the preservation or increase of NEA funding in the stimulus package. During the course of the debate, one writer suggested that the arts need new arguments for public support, that the old justifications just weren’t persuasive. The writer focused primarily on the old economic arguments—the arts provide employment, feed customers to restaurants and local businesses, and so forth. I have certainly relied on these arguments myself, though
I have always believed that the more persuasive and important arguments are those that focus on education and the impact of the arts on children and society—especially in times of economic distress when school systems are more and more likely to cut back on arts education.
In fairness, I can neither demonstrate nor defend any evidence suggesting that public spending on the arts is more or less stimulative than funding for that bridge. In fact, if I had to take a position, intellectual honesty suggests that investment in a bridge is probably more stimulative than investment in the arts. But that same intellectual honesty leads me to argue that the bridge-or-art distinction is the wrong battle line. Maybe this is the old guns-and-butter choice that I studied in college economics, but I would like to posit that the best argument is simply that we need the arts: we need them as individuals and as a society. Whether investment in the arts is more or less stimulative than investment in a bridge is irrelevant. There is little private incentive to provide arts opportunities—particularly during economic downturns—but society has been better off for millennia because of public support for the arts and nothing about this particular moment makes that fact any less true.
The best argument for the arts, then, is, well, the arts.
Chairman, ISC Board of Directors
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