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Federal arts spending: pork or economic driver?

As Congress tries to come to consensus on an economic stimulus bill, arts advocates are concluding that they need to do a better job of demonstrating that the arts stimulate the economy, too.
While the House version still contains $50 million for t

As Congress tries to come to consensus on an economic stimulus bill, arts advocates are concluding that they need to do a better job of demonstrating that the arts stimulate the economy, too.

While the House version still contains $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts, the Senate has dropped the provision. Opponents claim the allocation is a prime example of pork.

“What that (the pork reference) tells me is we have a lot of work to do about explaining the importance of the arts as not only bringing balance to society but as an economic stimulator and development opportunity,” said Vickie Benson, arts program officer for the McKnight Foundation in Minneapolis and current president of Seattle-based Grantmakers in the Arts.

Her grantmakers group is working on an advocacy plan to “try to impact people’s thinking and using statistics on the arts as an economic developer,” Benson said.

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To get her point across in Minnesota, Benson says she frequently cites statistics from the 2007 Artists Count study, conducted by Minnesota Citizens for the Arts. The study found that Minnesota is home to about 19,600 individual artists and that the annual economic impact of “artist spending” is about $250 million.

According to Americans for the Arts, a national lobbying group, the arts employ 5.7 million people nationwide and contribute $166.2 billion annually to the nation’s economy.

Interestingly, an economic relief package passed in 1935 made arts the priority among Works Project Administration projects, Chicago Tribune theater critic Chris Jones noted Monday.

“In less than 75 years,” Jones writes, “the arts have gone from the single largest priority in a government stimulus package to a toxic joke. It is a stunning turnaround.”

Jones puts some of the blame on the arts community. “It is time for the American arts community to confront its stunning political ineptitude. It has arrived at a place where there seems to be no one to make its case; no one, at least, free from the taint of self-interest.”

Benson and her cohorts have their work cut out for them.

RELATED CONTENT: How deep will McKnight cut grants to the arts? by Casey Selix, Tuesday, Feb. 10, 2009

Support arts funding in stimulus bill, group urges by Joe Kimball, Monday, Feb. 9, 2009