In 1976, when I was 17 years old, I received a check for 50 dollars from the National Endowment for the Arts.
I was a member of a touring theater company that performed free shows in low-income neighborhoods throughout New York City. We rehearsed for five weeks and performed for eight so my per hour income was paltry if not pathetic but I remember a great sense of pride when I cashed that check.
I was being paid by my government for entertaining people. I was proud to live in a country where that could happen. It also gave me great confidence in my talent. I continued to pursue this profession.
Within ten years the investment by my government of fifty dollars in 1976 was returning hundreds of thousands of dollars back to them in taxes.
Within the next decade the government received an even sweeter bounty on their fifty-dollar investment. And I was proud to pay these taxes. As I have been proud to invest back into the arts with The Actors’ Gang, a 30-year-old organization that provides free educational programs to public school children and at risk teens and offers affordable and accessible theatrical and musical events to the citizens of Los Angeles.
I am one story amongst many Americans who have benefited greatly from the arts programs the NEA has supported over the 46 years of its existence.
But recently a reactionary voice has been amplified in this country that argues that arts funding is superfluous, inconsequential, an indulgent drain on the economy. Not only is this reactionary voice wholeheartedly misguided and deceptive but this voice threatens the future cultural and economic life of this country. The simple truth is that people spend money when they attend arts events. Think of the amount of money you have spent in malls on your trips there to see a movie.
Economic impact studies have shown that for every dollar invested by our government in arts programs an average of nine dollars of spending is generated in communities where these arts programs exist. The arts are an engine for economic growth.
Shops spring up near cultural centers. Where plays are performed restaurants and bars are packed. Some businesses near cultural centers report a 200% increase in revenue when events occur at the center. Property values skyrocket. Entire communities are reborn economically by the presence of music halls, theaters and art galleries.
Why would anyone in his or her right mind eliminate funding to a proven income generating economic engine?
The arts programs supported by the NEA are also an engine for inspiration.
From symphony orchestras to roots blues groups, from local theater companies to the grand stage of the opera, the mission of NEA artists is to culturally enrich the communities they perform in, to tell stories relevant to our collective experience as Americans and to create moments of entertainment that can lift our spirits and inspire us for many years to come.
These two reasons should be enough to justify the necessity of the National Endowment for the Arts. But there is so much more to the NEA than its function as an economic stimulus or its support of museums and orchestral performances and live theater.
I wonder if the politicians calling for the elimination of the NEA know how integral the organization is to educational programs for children throughout this country.
In an environment where government cuts in arts education funding have already diminished our children’s access to the visual arts, theater, and music education, NEA supported programs are, in some communities, the child’s last possibility of exposure to the arts.
Arts education is not superfluous. It is essential.
Children with access to arts programs are better students, higher achievers than those who do not have the benefit of arts education. At risk youth who are able to participate in arts programs are more likely to stay in school and continue into higher education than those deprived of that education. Why would any politician want to eliminate funding for a government program that leads to more competitive students and lower drop out rates?
The fact is that millions of our nation’s children rely on the NEA as a lifeline, as a source of inspiration, as an engine to forging a better future.
What is the end game here? What is the vision of those that would deprive children of the chance to see great paintings, or to hear the music of Mozart or experience the theater of Shakespeare? What kind of society are they imagining? And what are we saying about ourselves if we allow this to happen?
A small amount of narrow-minded people with a loud megaphone are calling for the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts. They do not represent the majority of this country. They use incendiary language and are blindly ignorant of how essential the arts are to our country and its citizens.
I would like to believe that we can reach out to the reasonable, adult leaders of this country in both political parties that see the legitimacy and importance of the NEA.
I cannot believe that all Republicans support cuts to cultural programs. Certainly their hearts have been moved by great art as much as ours have. I would think that in this reactionary environment that politicians from both parties need our support to allow them the political will and the moral capital to vote their consciences. Perhaps if we can do that we can separate the real leaders of this country from the opportunistic headline grabbers trying to gain political points with the ignorant.
We are a great nation that has inspired groundbreaking changes in the arts throughout the world. Our freedom of expression, our unique creative voice, supported for 46 years by the NEA, has provided inspiration and hope to millions throughout the world and here at home.
We have the potential of encouraging future generations to even greater heights of creativity. But we cannot achieve these heights if we allow reactionary politicians to define who we are as a people. We mustn’t allow Philistine bullies to threaten our artistic institutions and the quality of our children’s future education.
We should be proud of the cultural achievements of our artists in the past forty-six years. Almost every town or municipality in this country has access to creative expression.
It would be terrible to imagine a United States of America without a vital, thriving and innovative cultural life. It would be tragic to give up on the idea that a nation’s support of innovative artistic expression is a necessary component to its future relevance and its ultimate brilliance.
We have defined ourselves in the world that way for years and have inspired millions around the globe towards free expression and artistic innovation. To give up on that is to redefine America, to imagine a lesser nation. Do we really want to be known from this point forward as the only advanced society in the world that completely disregards the importance of art?
Is this to be the legacy of the 112th Congress?