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Arts Bashing

SOURCE: AP/Lilli Strauss

A dress rehersal of "Luisa Fernanda," which premiered last year at the Los Angeles Opera, which has since had to lay off 17 percent of its staff.

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As Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) pointed out on the Senate floor yesterday, nearly all of the objections to the pending stimulus package are directed at a small number of programs that make up a fraction of 1 percent of the total stimulus measures in the bill. Perhaps no program remaining in the package has drawn more attention than the $50 million included for the National Endowment for the Arts.

Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN) was typical of the opponents to the stimulus legislation who seized on the arts to discredit the overall package; he told the House chamber, “It included wasteful government spending that has nothing to do with creating jobs. As I asked on this floor last week, what does $50 million to the National Endowment for the Arts have to do with creating jobs in Indiana?” Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA) was even more emphatic, saying, “We have real people out of work right now and putting $50 million in the NEA and pretending that’s going to save jobs as opposed to putting $50 million in a road project is disingenuous.”

A government study completed last spring indicates that there are about 5 million people in America who work in the arts in some capacity—most of them in support of artists in jobs ranging from janitors to accountants. About 2 million of that 5 million are actual artists, of whom 37 percent work full time. An occasional musician, painter, or actor does become fabulously wealthy, but most work long hours at pay that is modest by almost any standard. The median pay for musicians in 2005 was $22,600; for actors it was $23,400.

Life for most artists is tough even in good times, but in bad times artists are among the most vulnerable people in the workforce. As Dana Gioia, President Bush’s nominee to run the National Endowment for the Arts, said in a press release before departing the agency earlier this month, “Arts organizations have been hit enormously hard by the current recession. They’ve seen their support drop from corporations, foundations, and municipalities.”

That was exactly what happened in Los Angeles last week when 17 of the 100 employees with the Los Angeles Opera were laid off. The remaining workforce was forced to accept a 6 percent pay cut. The Michigan Opera Theater, in its 38th season, is now facing an annual deficit of about $600,000. The Utah Shakespearean Festival has cut more than $700,000 from its 2009 budget, including three of the festival’s 25 full-time employees.

About a third of all artists are self employed. Many live by the sale of their creations ranging from paintings to pottery—sales that are likely to fall by at least as much as retail sales and probably a good deal more. Still others perform at venues ranging from restaurants to night clubs and concert halls, all of which are struggling in an environment where entertainment is one of the first victims in shrinking family budgets.

So are these real workers? Should their struggles elicit less concern than those of other workers facing layoffs and financial calamity? How does helping artists help the economy?

It is true that artists contribute much to society that can not be measured in dollars and cents, but art is a significant economic force across the entire country, not just in big cities on the East and West Coasts. I work with an organization that has helped communities such as Lowell, Massachusetts; Bangor, Maine; Richmond, Virginia; and Butte, Montana use traditional music performances as a tool for urban renewal, to enhance local property values, and to create jobs in a variety of industries not directly related to the arts. No one can deny the role of music and art generally in the rebirth and rebuilding of New Orleans. Mike Pence’s home state even has close to 30,000 people who make their living as artists and perhaps as many more who are employed by museums, symphony orchestras, and other organizations in support of the arts. When they lose their pay checks, it affects the economy in precisely the same manner as if anyone else had lost a job.

One question that might reasonably be asked is why there is not more in this package for the arts. Even if we exclude the 3 million people who work in support of art and art organizations and the 1.3 million artists who work less than full time, the remaining 700,000 full time artists constitute 0.5 percent of the workforce. That compares to the size of the NEA allocation in the stimulus, which totals six thousandths of 1 percent. In other words, artist representation in the work force is more than a thousand times greater than their representation in the stimulus package.

So why has funding for the arts become a punching bag for those who oppose economic stimulus? One can only conclude that it speaks not only to their philistine values, but to the desperate nature of their attempts to discredit the new president’s first legislative initiative, and to the complete lack of substantive analysis that they bring to their arguments against the initiative.

The report from the Labor Department this morning indicates that we are now losing jobs at the rate of 20,000 a day. Since the House began floor consideration last week, 200,000 Americans no longer have paychecks. How many more will lose their income before we decide that people like Jack Kingston and Mike Pence are no longer making the country’s economic policy?

CAP on economic recovery:

Brief: Recovery and Reinvestment 101

Interactive Map: Beyond the Beltway: Helping Those Most in Need

Interactive: Build Your Own Stimulus Package

Video: How the Recovery Package Works

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