Arts Funding and Apple Pie

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As our nation again celebrates its birth and, with that, the best of who we all are as a people, I have been watching our leaders wrangle about the national budget and give alternative views of our values and priorities. Last time I checked, the proposed funding for the National Endowment for the Arts for fiscal year 2011 is $155 million dollars. This comes out to not quite 51 cents per citizen, or a little more than the cost of a postage stamp. One Raptor F-22 military aircraft costs about $150 million and Donald Rumsfeld ordered 24 of them in 2004.

I know I will be preaching to the choir when I tell you that it is important for government (which is, after all, by-for-and-of the people) to support the arts. It is our representatives doing what we want them to do.

So I am going to give you some reading material and things to ponder over the Fourth of July weekend.

  • An interesting article and download on the role of the arts in educating America can be found here.
  • Part of a May 28 press release from Americans for the Arts which assessed the impact of Gov. Sam Brownback vetoing funds for the Kansas Arts Commission.

"During the KAC’s 45-year history, Kansas’ nonprofit arts and culture sector has become a booming industry—one that generates $153.5 million annually in direct statewide economic activity. This spending–$80.3 million by nonprofit arts and culture organizations and an additional $73.2 million in event-related spending by their audiences–supports 4,612 full-time equivalent jobs, generates $95.1 million in household income to local residents and delivers $15.6 million in local and state government revenue. With modest grants to non-profit arts groups, the KAC has been the driving force in establishing arts and cultural organizations in many of Kansas’ most rural communities, providing all citizens, not just those in large urban areas, with access to quality artistic experiences.

"Further, the KAC received a matching grant of $778,200 from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in 2011 to support Kansas jobs, artists and cultural groups. That funding is now lost for 2012 with the elimination of the KAC, the only agency in Kansas that is eligible for the NEA’s matching grants. Kansas also loses the $437,767 the KAC brought in from its regional partner, the Mid-America Arts Alliance. This $1.2 million funding shortfall far exceeds the $689,000 KAC appropriation recommended by the Kansas legislature during budget negotiations."

To which I would add that we might not have had Samuel Ramey, Joyce DiDonato (right) and Alan Held as leading opera singers had they not been exposed to the arts in their native Kansas. They might have come to us all the same, but the odds are greater of inspiring art when young people have contact with it. I know that my late friend, Kevin Oldham, had early support and encouragement from the KAC, resulting in the composition of great music in his short life, including a piano concerto that I believe will gradually join the standard repertoire.

It strikes me that a city, state or nation that casts its lot with the arts can justify that choice (which is to say, expenditure) from many points of view. In a future post I will recount to you the impressions I gathered in Austria, a nation that has cast its lot with the arts. We know that young minds develop more fully when music, language and visual arts are part of the mix. No one denies that. So this favors intellectual development and brain functioning. This will make for more productive workers and, perhaps, fewer incidences of dementia later in life.

We know that the arts inform, instruct, challenge, soothe and inspire people of all ages. Funding the arts does not require that everyone become an artist. It is not about politics unless we make it so. Years ago I heard Newt Gingrich try to make the distinction between “serious” arts and those that were not. It is a slippery endeavor to do that, but he did include opera among the serious arts and spoke in favor of supporting opera. I think he even referred to Rigoletto as an example of what to support with public funds. I agree with him, even if Rigoletto is not exactly a “family values” kind of work. Yet it is about human nature and is a mirror of many lives, with the addition of fabulous music.

The elder George Bush is known to like opera, even if he -- in the search for votes -- publicly stated his admiration for Loretta Lynn (whom I also like as a singer even though she said she preferred Bush to Dukakis because she could not pronounce the latter’s name). I met Nancy Reagan twice at the Metropolitan Opera and she genuinely enthused about the importance of supporting the arts. Betty Ford danced with the Martha Graham troupe and Gerald Ford believed in federal and state arts support.

We know that government-sponsored international tours of American artists such as Louis Armstrong and Leontyne Price in the 1950s radically enhanced our national image abroad, including nations that were considered our enemies. I find it interesting that these African-American artists were honored abroad but had to face segregation and discrimination at home. These initiatives happened during the administrations of Democrat Harry Truman and Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower. The latter admired Churchill’s statement, when it was proposed that arts funding in Great Britain be cut during World War Two, “Then what are we fighting for?”

The national movement for government support of the arts got rolling thanks to Jacqueline Kennedy with strong backing from Eisenhower and, later, President Lyndon Baines Johnson. But it was President Richard Nixon who really expanded government support of the arts, whose educational, spiritual and diplomatic value he grasped. He played the piano for Pearl Bailey, whom he appointed as part of the American delegation at the United Nations. She later endorsed Gerald Ford in part because Ford and his wife believed in supporting the arts.

The arts are not Republican or Democratic. They are American. They will be our legacy as a civilization long after we forget who our politicians were. They unite us and they describe us to the rest of the world.

Right now, British Prime Minister David Cameron seems to have forgotten Churchill’s dictum and is slashing money from the small budget in the UK. One of the most important and haunting Web sites I have seen in a long time was created to document what is vanishing artistically in Britain and what might yet disappear.

Please ponder all of this and send your thoughts not only to your own legislators but to those who are saying we cannot afford 51 cents per citizen for preserving and advancing civilization. What are we fighting for?

Photo credits - Joyce DiDonato: ©Sheila Rock - Sir Winston Churchill: AFP