I recently went to the San Francisco ballet. I blogged about it (see here if you’d like to read.) What I didn’t mention in that blog was that right after the ballet ended, we headed over to a protest across the street. As with many of the protests, it covered a large swath of concerns, including fighting for immigrants, refugees, the environment and women’s rights.

But, going to a protest right after seeing the beautiful artistry of the ballet, I realized something was missing from the sea of black ink on poster board.There’s something else we need to fight for now. It isn’t a fancy concept or one that can stir up a lot of vitriol. In fact, given that it’s as if America is disintegrating before our eyes and every day there is some new executive order or government ruling that feels like a gut punch to the fabric of a civilized, thoughtful society, this one might go unnoticed.

So what is it? I warned you, it won’t be the most dramatic answer.

There is serious talk in the US government of defunding the National Endowment for the Arts. Perhaps you’re not concerned about this. Maybe you’re unfamiliar with the NEA. I didn’t really know what it was until recently. I had a vague understanding it existed. I didn’t have any issue with government support for the arts. But, like many things, we don’t really appreciate what we have until someone threatens to take it away.

Why Should I Care About the NEA?

I think this is an excellent question. The bottom line is no matter how you feel about the current president of the US, there is a large group of people disgruntled with the direction of the country and feeling left behind. Perhaps these same people, and many others, wonder why they should care about something frivolous like funding for the arts when there are larger issues. These are valid concerns. For those who are open enough to hear my argument as to why the arts are important or who just want to learn more about the NEA, read on…

abtSo what is the NEA?

The NEA was founded in 1965. In fact, the first NEA grant back in 1965 was awarded to The American Ballet Theatre. (Yay ballet!) Since then, it’s been providing grants and funding to “organizations that exhibit artistic excellence.” This is a very vague phrase and, therefore, the NEA covers a pretty diverse group of organizations. It includes anything from state symphonies and orchestras to youth programs, writing programs to local theaters, and even broadcast stations like PBS and NPR.

Let’s Make this Personal!

wolftrapThe NEA probably does more for you locally than you realize. I live in Northern Virginia, so let’s start with my state. In Virginia, the NEA supports the Wolf Trap Performing Arts Center in Vienna and the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, the American Youth Philharmonic and Virginia Symphony Orchestras as well as programs at George Mason and James Madison universities, to name just a few.

Close to my heart, it also supports writing and writers programs. Specifically, it supports an annual conference (the largest of its kind in North America), which features readings and panel discussions about literature, writing, editing, publishing and teaching. The NEA also supports online resources for the literature field and the publication and promotion of “The Writer’s Chronicle.”

Want to see what the NEA funded in your state, if you live in the US, click here.

Oh Who Cares About the Arts, We Need to Focus on the Economygw.gif

It’s certainly possible showing the breadth of the programs and organizations the NEA covers isn’t convincing enough. Maybe you need something more concrete. So let’s talk about three things a lot of people care about – the intent and ideas of our founding fathers, history and money.

Founding Fathers

The founding fathers, including the first President of the United States, were supporters of the arts and many thought they were fundamental for a successful society.

“The arts…are essential to the prosperity of the state and to the ornament and happiness of human life. They have a primary claim to the encouragement of every lover of his country and mankind.”

-George Washington, 1st President of the United States

Want more history?

Example of work commissioned under the WPA to help artists, picture by Earle Richardson

Back in the Great Depression, leaders of the US recognized the value of artists and artisans in overcoming dark economic times. They developed several programs, including the WPA, which helped provide art jobs for artists. You can even thank that program for their early support of iconic artists like Jackson Pollock.

Still not convinced? Don’t care about some guy who it looks like just throws paint on a canvass?

Let’s talk cold hard cash then.

It’s easy to say, let’s just open up/re-open up factories and keep jobs in America and that will solve everything. If you think there is an easy solution to any complex problem, you’re mistaken. If you believe anyone who says there is. You’re going to be disappointed. There’s no easy answer to economic issues, whether perceived or real. The economy is a large and complex machine that sometimes doesn’t make sense. But, here’s something you need to know, supporting the arts may actually be fundamental to a health of an economy. It’s not the only thing, but like many different aspects to economic growth, it probably plays a more important role than you realize.

Here are some quick facts* to make my case

  • In 2013, arts and cultural production contributed $704.2 billion to the U.S. economy.
  • This economic activity supports 4.13 million full-time jobs and generates $86.68 billion in resident household income.
  • The arts industry also generates $22.3 billion in revenue to local, state, and federal governments every year.
  • Arts and culture produced more than some other sectors, such as construction ($619B) and utilities ($270B).
  • The arts contributed to 32.5% of the growth in GDP between 1998 and 2013.

Providing government grants to keep the arts going and growing benefits everyone. A rising tide raises all boats, as they say.

So how do you feel about the arts now?

Perhaps I didn’t convince you with these arguments. If so, I’m not sure anything would. Or maybe you’re already on board and don’t need convincing. If so, take these facts and help educate others on the importance of the arts and why we can’t let it be washed away in this misguided tide of defunding and deregulation.

At the very least I hope this made you think. Supporting the arts many not solve the country’s problems. But, it might be more important than you realize. That’s not an easy answer to those of you who have woes about the US and want a quick fix. But, maybe we need to stop looking for easy answers.

*Arts & Economic Prosperity IV, the fourth study of the nonprofit arts and culture industry’s impact on the economy and the National Endowment for the Arts and the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis of the economic impact of the arts between 1998 and 2013.