One of the biggest issues facing our country today is how to create new jobs and reduce unemployment. Obviously, conservatives and progressives disagree on the role of the government in job creation and have very different viewpoints on what constitutes the most effective way to grow our economy and position ourselves for continued prosperity. My doctorate in music leaves me thoroughly unprepared to offer a prescription for solving these problems. In this, as in many other situations, I’m forced to declare: “I’m not that kind of doctor.” (On a side note, just once I’d like to be in an emergency that does require the services of a Ph.D. in Music. Surely after the zombie apocalypse such a moment is bound to arise.)
But the one aspect of the debate that I find troubling is how funding for the arts only seems to be discussed when specific art works are found to be offensive. At times, it appears that we forget that jobs in the arts are just that: jobs. While I believe that reasonable people can disagree as to the role of government funding and whether or not tax dollars should be spent on the arts, I find it frustrating how little we discuss the true economic impact of our cultural institutions. People writing about sports consistently tout the amount of money spent by tourists enjoying these events while downplaying the public support of their stadiums and the other costs associated with these undertakings. When a city bids to host the Olympics or a Super Bowl, most media coverage cites claims that the economy of the region will benefit from success. But it’s relatively rare to hear any discussion of an orchestra’s impact on the local restaurants and shopping districts, or to see any mention of the administrative and support work created by these institutions.
A recent opinion column on the Los Angeles Times website (that argues strenuously for federal funding of the arts) provided some surprising numbers related to the overall economic impact of jobs within the arts. The 5.7 million “workers in the nation’s culture industry” (no explanation as to exactly what types of jobs were being counted, but to me that does seem like a lot of jobs) pay over $30 billion in taxes annually. It’s astonishingly rare to see any sort of figures assigned to the monetary value of the arts sector, and so this post quickly caught my attention. Yet even while arguing strenuously for the economic benefits of arts funding, the author declines to make any mention of the impact cultural institutions have on their surrounding communities. Instead, even this rare discourse on art as an economic engine limits the discussion to tax revenues directly recovered from people working in arts jobs. It would be nice to see coverage of the true value of our work to our communities.
Whether the dollars come from private foundations or from governments, investing in artists provides excellent returns. Those of us in creative fields enter them in order to fulfill artistic dreams. As an avid follower of the MacArthur Foundation “genius” grants, I have seen time and again that when artists get windfalls (whether small or large), we immediately think about how we can use those funds to improve our art. We think about projects that lack resources and how lucky we are to finally have the ability to realize these dreams. Generally, these ideas expand beyond even the new limitations and in the final accounting the unexpected funds allow for the realization of a dream while the artist happily loses money. And once the projects are completed, they can help to raise the profile of the community itself. When Chicago unveiled Millennium Park, the contemporary abstract commissioned sculptures (funded through private sources and left on public display) immediately began drawing tourists and locals to a relatively neglected area of downtown that now is a bustling hub of economic activity.
I have been fortunate to receive funding from my state arts council twice: in 2009 and again this year. When I made my personal report after the previous grant, I found that not only had I reinvested every penny into my state’s economy, but that the funds had inspired me to embark on projects exceeding the amounts rendered. The immediate impact on my personal finances was actually to have less cash available for things like meals, while instead encouraging me to realize plans that I had been forced to delay many times in the past. I continue to reap the benefits of so doing. The moment I opened the letter bearing the latest good news, I immediately thought about the new projects that could be generated.
It appears to me that the arts are a good investment. They provide jobs and raise the profile of the hosting communities. I hope that we can take a page from other fields of entertainment and talk about the economic benefits of supporting our cause, whether that support derives from public or private sources. Perhaps rather than talking solely about artistic values, we might also discuss our work in terms of the positive economic impact it has on our communities. By reframing the debate, we might be able to remind people that the arts are a vital part of a thriving economy.