Regardless of your political views, it is clear that we are living in uncertain times. Things are bound to change under this new administration, perhaps drastically, if the events of the past few weeks and months are any indication. The arts, which have a long history of holding up a mirror to society in our best and worst times, are under particular threat. The incoming administration has threatened to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Combined, these agencies make up just .006% of the federal budget – that’s right, less than .01% combined. That’s like saying you are going to try to balance your own budget by not buying toilet paper for a month, or something ridiculous like that. (Actually, according to the Americans for the Arts, it’s the equivalent of a person who makes $50,000/year saving just $10 annually – a most literal drop in the bucket.) And just as toilet paper is integral to your daily hygiene, the NEA and the NEH are a crucial support for an important aspect of our nation’s economy.
While the arts contribute 4.23%, or 704.2 BILLION dollars to the GDP, and create 4.7 MILLION jobs – jobs that cannot be outsourced or automated, I should add – the National Endowment for the Arts costs 46 CENTS per capita annually. That’s right, $0.46 per person year to support the largest grant maker to arts organizations in the country. Meanwhile, $870 per American family is spent annually to support “Direct Subsidies and Grants to Companies,” otherwise known as corporate welfare. If we average four member per family, that’s roughly 500 times per person more for corporate welfare than arts support. (And please, correct me on my math if it’s wrong – I’m not a numbers girl.)
Aside from creating jobs for artists, administrators, and related professionals, the arts are good for local economies. According to Americans for the Arts, the average attendee of a non-profit arts event spends about $25 per event above and beyond the cost of admission. Think about it – when you go to a museum, see a concert, attend a performance at the theatre, how much do you actually spend outside of the ticket cost? More often then not you’ll have dinner first, maybe a drink during intermission, dessert after. Maybe you’ll duck into a nearby boutique with a cute storefront or buy a tee-shirt or CD in the venue’s lobby shop. It’s not a coincidence that arts venues are often an integral part of community revitalization.
Then, of course, are all the for-profit small businesses based in the arts – dance studios, music schools, art galleries, costume companies, instrument makers, etc. – and the not-so small ones, too (your Hobby Lobby-s and Guitar Centers, for example). These would not exist if not for the inspiration of the artists and arts organizations funded by the NEA. Little girls and boys see the Nutcracker and enroll for ballet lessons; people go to the museum and decide to try their hand at painting. Inspiration happens and businesses open, jobs are created, rent and utilities are paid, fliers are made and supplies are purchased, lawyers and accountants and contractors are hired. The local economy thrives.
I’m sticking to the economics of the arts here, because for better or for worse it has become one of our most effective arguments for support. But, imagine a world without the arts. A world without music (everything from classical to metal), without theatre (or TV and movies, which grew from the theatrical realm), without art (or graphic design, photography, fashion, animated movies, or video games, which all rely on visual artists), without dance and musicals and even yoga and zumba and Pilates (the latter movement practices are often supported economically by dancers or taught by dancers). This is not to mention arts education or arts therapy programs. There is, of course, a vast body of research which shows that students benefit academically, socially, and personally from studying and practicing the arts. The NEA also supports the cutting-edge work in arts therapy with a variety of populations, including veterans suffering from PTSD.
Artists bring to light the things that are hidden in society. They are our most valuable form of protest (non-violent, productive, economically beneficial), and a reflection of our society at our best and our worst. Art asks for very little – artists are mostly self-sufficient, and we’re used to doing great things with very little. The artistic community make miracles happen with 46 cents a year (metaphorically). The NEA, if nothing else, is important because of it’s symbolism. It says that we, as a nation, value our culture, our expression, our history, our arts, and our artists.