16 February 2009

One Giant Leap for the Arts: Congress Includes Financing for the NEA in the Recovery Bill

As President Obama signs into effect the $787 billion economic stimulus package today at the Museum of Nature & Science in Denver, Colorado, many American artists are ecstatic with the resulting effects of the bill on the creative community. Since the start of negotiations on the recovery package began in mid-January, many performance advocacy groups, such as Americans for the Arts, have been lobbying Congress to keep the arts in mind as they attempt to help boost the failing economy. Though the national stimulus bill saw much opposition and change as it made its way through the negotiations process, it was passed on Friday including the $50 million package for the National Endowment for the Arts (see image left). With 246 to 183 votes in the House and 60 to 38 votes in the Senate, the bill was finally adopted after a historically peculiar five-hour and 17-minute voting process, due to a Senator’s mother’s funeral. Regardless of the hostility toward the arts inclusion in the bill, much of the American workforce has ties to the creative community.

According to a government study from spring 2008, cited in Scott Lilly's article “Arts Bashing,” around five million Americans jobs are related to the arts in one way or another. However, only two million are actual artists, and only 37 percent of those work full time. This makes almost 700,000 people employed by the arts. These performers make up about half a percent of the American workforce, with the average salary for an actor falling at about $24 thousand a year. Like the rest of the country, the already suffering arts have been affected by the poor economy. Not only have many groups lost support from outside sources such as corporations and foundations, but they have also made cuts of their own. Right here in Los Angeles the Opera had to lay off 17 of their 100 full time employees, while the remainder had to endure a six percent salary decrease. In an article by the International Herald Tribune from January, Robert Lynch, current president of Americans for the Arts, said that the arts community “contribute[s] $167 billion to the economy annually.” According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, this is comparable to the Gross Domestic Product of the Agriculture industry in 2007, which was around $167.9 billion dollars. Regardless, the arts have to make their cuts as well. As president and chief executive of Opera America Marc Scorca points out in the International Herald Tribune article, “these [artists] are taxpayers and rent payers and mortgage payers, just like every other employee.”

Despite pleas for help and recognition, the artists' community is often overlooked as a group that would require financial help at such a high political level. As the stimulus package worked its way through legislative branch, many people questioned the $50 million included for the National Endowment for the Arts. The organization, which has seen a drastic decrease in funding from $176 million in 1992 to $145 million today, is an independent public agency dedicated to supporting excellence in the field while offering access to all Americans, and providing leadership in art education. In spite of all of this, many Representatives, such as Mike Pence (R-IN), were quoted in Lilly's article calling the money “wasteful government spending that has nothing to do with creating jobs,” ignoring the fact that the package is also intended to help preserve existing jobs. Others who opposed the money, such as Representative Jack Kingston (R-GA) boldly stated that America has “real people out of work right now and putting $50 million in the NEA and pretending that's going to save jobs... is disingenuous.” Kingston seems to believe that artists out of work, however, do not affect the economy in the same manner in which a “real person” would have once they lost their job. As the bill was on the floor of Congress Friday (see image right), Representative David R. Obey (D- WI) was quoted by the New York Times' ArtsBeat blog negatively emphasizing the fantasy of being able to ignore the “five million people who work in the arts industry.” He continued his statement by saying the industry has “12.5 percent unemployment” and accusing “that somehow if you work in that field, it isn’t real when you lose your job, your mortgage or your health insurance?” Finally he drives home the point of the inclusion of the money for the NEA by explaining “We’re trying to treat people who work in the arts the same way as anybody else.” The arts stimulus package was not the only one under scrutiny, as Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) pointed out during negotiations. A majority of all of the packages under objection before the passing of the bill were those which included small programs, making up less than one percent of the entire $767 billion.

While the bill passed in the House of Representatives on Wednesday, January 28th, the original Senate version did not include money for the arts, according to ArtsBeat. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives had to cut their monetary estimates by almost $100 billion. According to an article in the New York Times, the final stimulus bill will include about $507 billion for spending programs. This includes about $150 billion for public works, $87 billion toward Medicaid, $6.5 billion toward medical research and $50 million package for the National Endowment for the Arts. The remainder of the $787 billion will go towards tax related expenses, with about 74 percent of the budget being spent in the next 18 months. Even as much as the amount has been cut from the beginning negotiations, this recovery bill will be the largest financial recovery measure by the U.S. Government during a recession since World War II.

In conclusion, this stimulus package and the approval of the $50 million supporting the National Endowment for the Arts emphasizes the hopes that much of the theatrical community had in the new administration. By recognizing that the arts industry is a critical part of American culture, it is finally time for it to be financially supported by the U.S. Government. Having at last found a president who is willing to partner with the creative community, who knows what may happen next. Perhaps Quincy Jones' plea for a Secretary of Arts, similar to that of many European countries, will finally be answered.

1 comment:

  1. With the economic downturn being on the mind of every American, this topic addresses something of timely and vital importance. Writing about the American recovery and Reinvestment Act and how much of it went to art fits seamlessly into the blog’s focus of looking at the business of theatre and how it connects into all aspects of life. I personally am glad that President did not forget about the arts, including theatre, when signing the bill. You wrote your entry in a manner that was easy to read and follow, and your use of links really supported your argument. One link that I found to be especially powerful in supporting your argument was the link to the article in the International Herald Tribune, in which Robert Lynch is quoted as saying that the arts contributes $167 million annually to the economy. The inclusion of the idea that Quincy Jones proposed at the very end was a great conclusion, reinforcing your point that the Arts needs as much support as any other industry in America.

    Despite the well written post and the well-supported argument you make, I have to say that I was a little disappointed with the picture you included. For me, the graphics did not provide any evidence or add anything at all. However, I have to give you praise for your professional voice. You managed to come from a standpoint that pushed for more funding, yes understood how much all industries are currently suffering. I genuinely hope that Obama’s bill has the intended effects and does not fall flat. As an avid supporter of the arts, I enjoyed reading your post. I hope you hold the rest up to the same standard.


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