Dear Senator McCain

They just don't get it do they? In the debate over the stimulus package today John McCain was quoted as saying "$50 million in funding for the National Endowment for the Arts - all of us are for the arts, but tell me how that creates any significant number of jobs?"

The arts community immediately mobilized and began sending him messages via his website. Here is mine:

How does funding the arts create any significant number of jobs? Let me just give you one small example. I am a scenic designer who frequently works for a small children's theatre in Manhattan. The theatre produces 7 shows each year, mostly during the school season. Each show employs 4 Designers, a stage manager, a director, a technical director, two carpenters, a stage manager, 5 office assistants, 8 to 12 actors, a music director, a choreographer, two box office assistants... in other words nearly 30 people per show.

This doesn't even begin to account for the people who work for the lighting rental houses, the fabric stores, the paint stores, the costume rental houses, the printers, the lumber suppliers, the hardware store, and dry cleaners who receive funds from each of our shows.

We pay royalties for book rights, to the playwrights, and the musicians. We hire accountants and use ticketing firms.

We are a SMALL theatre company and in all each of our shows pours 30 or $40,000 back into the local economy, and that is simply what we ourselves generate. That doesn't account for sales at nearby stores or restaurants, sales at book and toy stores because the children want the book our show was based on, taxis, subways, babysitters, strollers... the bottom line is that art IS business. Please stop treating art like a luxury that the country can live without. Art drives the economy just as surely as manufacturing or service, and it is time that that was recognized and "stimulated" along with everything else.

13 Response to "Dear Senator McCain"

  • Nita Says:

    Outstanding! Specific, real-life report from one who knows "art creates jobs." Please send this to more of our Congress Critters, or maybe a newspaper. It's worth going further than McCain's staff.

  • Patricia Says:

    Amen! Beautifully said, Cully. I agree wholeheartedly with Nita, please distribute this more widely to newspapers and especially to those tone-deaf members of Congress, who, despite the November election, still don't get it.

  • addisonbr Says:

    I think there may be a distinction between some kinds of art and other kinds of art as far as this stuff goes... If we are having a conversation about a stimulus (and not whether art is good or bad or worthwhile or etc.), theater shows that employ people and do all of the other great economic things mentioned in this post probably should be looked at through the same lens as for any other business or service. Theater is art that is more directly a part of the economy, and the economics should be evaluated as such.

    I think what people object to is the portion of NEA funding that goes to grants for art installations and sculpture and etc. which aren't a particularly efficient way of giving the economy a boost. I can see the argument for why stimulating a theater is no different from stimulating another business... But as far as awarding a sculptor a grant for an outdoor installation, it's not clear to me why that's a better stimulus idea than just writing a check to a random American.

    I'm ignoring whether art is good, just looking at the economics.

    Please don't kill me. I'm not in favor of the financial bailouts either.

  • Cully Says:

    First lets be clear that the NEA DOES fund theatrical productions as part of its mission. So most of my argument is valid.

    That said, a singular artist still buys supplies, marble, wood, canvas, paint, uses services, feeds himself... and gallery shows and installations generate the same ripple business as theatre. Maybe in the end it ISN'T that much better than just handing a check to a random person, but at least with the NEA there is some exterior guidance as to how the money is being used. If the idea is to get money into the economy and circulating... does it matter how it happens?

    My more direct objection to Mr. McCain is that he doesn't seem to see how art generates even a SINGLE job, which is the same silly objection that I've heard hundreds of times. That arts employment is somehow less valid, or less productive than a factory job. Its a myopic view, and it is one that is damaging our culture. The same view leads to arts being the first cut made when funds are short at schools or universities, arts endowments being cut when governments are running short, etc. etc. How many high schools have you ever heard of cutting their sports programs? Now how many cutting their arts programs?

  • addisonbr Says:

    I totally didn't mean to give the impression I didn't think the NEA funded theater... Sorry about that.

    "If the idea is to get money into the economy and circulating... does it matter how it happens?"

    A little, yeah. The government would rather (for example) pay someone $60K a year to (say) build a road than pay someone $60K a year to sit at home and do nothing, even though in both cases that person will go out and have $60K to spend. Because that road will lead to other economic benefits. I'm not saying that art = nothing (not saying that at all, believe me), I'm just saying that it does matter how the stimulus happens.

    Art's big handicap in the debate is that it's hard to measure how much better off people are with it, and that kills art from the perspective of people who are used to measuring utility only in dollars.

    Interestingly, my high school quit funding athletics years ago - students who want to do sports have to pay $75 per different sport per year to participate, the rest coming from fundraising activities. I have no idea if they still fund the arts or not. Yes, this is the exception.

  • libhom Says:

    addisonbr: Obviously, you don't know how much the arts do to stimulate tourism. With the weak dollar, foreign tourism in our country one of the few bright spots in the US economy.

  • addisonbr Says:

    On the contrary - I find that stuff very interesting. Which is better for the economy, the Gravina Island Highway or The Gates? I won't tell you my answer right away, but I don't even think the answer is close.

    I respect art and the economics of art plenty enough to include it in the debate - just because it's hard to measure something doesn't mean it can't be significant.

  • Cully Says:

    Of course it is better to give 60K to a road worker than to a couch jockey, that wasn't may argument at all. I am more interested in the difference between giving 60k to a road worker or a sculptor. The Gates and Gravina Island are both extreme examples, the Gates of course generated enough money to BUILD the Gravina Island bridge. Yes, art's returns may be difficult to measure in some ways, but I would argue that so are lots of other things that this bill probably covers without argument. Why was this line the one that stuck in the craw?

    $50 Million, which is what this bill has as a provision to the NEA, is a pittance in the grand scheme. It is less that Citigroup will be paying to have their name on the Mets stadium, 8 times less in fact, and in the end it could be argued that we paid for that too.

  • addisonbr Says:

    "I am more interested in the difference between giving 60k to a road worker or a sculptor."

    I totally agree. I think that's a very worthwhile discussion. I'm guessing that some NEA grants won't do so well in the comparison, but that others will.

    "Why was this line the one that stuck in the craw?"

    My best guess is that in addition to the measurement problems we (seem to?) agree on, the NEA has historically been a target of the religious right for non-economic reasons.

    Pretty much everything that has anything to do with the new Mets and Yankees stadiums, I am against - so I'm unambiguously with you there.

  • Cully Says:

    "I totally agree. I think that's a very worthwhile discussion. I'm guessing that some NEA grants won't do so well in the comparison, but that others will."

    As could be said about any road project. The issue here, is coming up with a comparative method. Even road through the heart of a rural county that may get 1,000 cars a year is certainly not going to generate revenue in the same way that a large scale public art project does, like Chicago's "Cloud" sculpture. They do both alter the economic landscape, but in considerably different ways. A road may attract home builders to an area where they wouldn't have built before, or boost sales at a store because it links a neighborhood that was less accessible before. An art project is going to alter foot traffic in a similar way, drawing people into an area of park where they may not have gone before, providing vendor opportunities, providing marketing opportunities... how do you determine which is better? Is it long term improvement, like the road, or cultural improvement? (This is assuming a culturally significant piece.) This is an apples and oranges problem. Quantitative improvement vs. qualitative improvement. Do we use merely that a road project might be a more immediate pay off?

    The best historic model that we have to rely on is the New Deal. Projects like the WPA, and the Civilian Conservation Corps fit this exactly. Roads vs. Art. FDR determined both to be important enough to fund, and both are still having an enormous impact. The CCC built roads, parks and buildings are still in use, and still being enjoyed, the WPA left a lasting mark on art history and help shape our cultural contribution to the world. Both contributed to the recovery of the economy at the time.

  • addisonbr Says:

    "how do you determine which is better?"

    If the context is a stimulus package, I think you just try to measure it economically the best you can. I think you did a good job with your theater production example. In a setting other than emergency financial bailout bills, I would probably move cultural impact higher on the list.

    I am against a lot of what is in these packages. People are welcome to bring up bad examples of spending in them, and I will agree with them more than they agree with themselves. I just don't happen to believe that art funding is immune from thoughtful analysis/critique is all. I'm an equal-opportunity critiquer :)

    I know I'm walking into the lion's den on this; I hope the general tone of what I'm trying to convey is coming through okay.

  • Cully Says:

    "I just don't happen to believe that art funding is immune from thoughtful analysis/critique"

    No, of course not. Neither should it be the go-to cut whenever problems arise. The long standing answer has been to cut "luxuries" from the budget. We lose the arts, we lose funding for "green" initiatives, we lose funding for public works projects, because they aren't deemed essential in a time of economic crisis in the way other things are. Maybe it's time to try another way?

    Look, I'm torn about the stimulus too. I don't know enough to know if Keynsian style stimulus is the answer, but nearly 2 decades of cuts hasn't worked, has it?

  • John Says:

    Somehow, NEA funding became synonymous with "Shits on the American Flag as Art" and "Nasty Kinda Gay Mapplethorpe Photos" - when the social conservatives see that, they see red - in the normal sense of the word, and as in "ink." We'll never get better funding for the arts generally until that "stigma" is removed in the general populace. I've always argued we need a new WPA-style explosion of theater - most of our "great" American theater was written for non-profit companies.
    We need big touring theatrical companies that put big "Funded by the NEA" banners on their shows that provide fun, middle-of-the-road entertainment with depth, more funding for independent film, dance, and music that's not just Post-Modern Orchestral 12-tone crap. Most publicly funded art is concentrated on the "hip" artists whose work resonates only with extremely educated and elite consumers. The closer art hits the middle class, the more they will support it.
    Sorry for the rant - but indeed, not all artists are solo - most of the collaborative art is underfunded to a ridiculous degree. It's not a money-making enterprise by any stretch of the imagination - just as police-work, firefighting, road-building, and school teaching aren't. Nor should they be - they exist primarily to benefit society as a whole, and this is why all of these things should be funded by the population generally, and not profit-driven. MORE GOVERNMENT MONEY FOR COLLABORATIVE ART!!
    Thus endeth the rant.