Economic Stimulus

Like everyone else I’ve been reading the constant impossible-to-avoid doomsday headlines about tens of thousands of people losing their jobs as a result of the economic downturn. Today I had lunch with someone whose business folded. Last week I walked along West 8th Street in New York’s Greenwich Village which now feels like a vast ghost town—all I could see on this once thriving shopping mecca were vacant stores which seem unlikely to be re-occupied anytime in the near future. Admittedly, the former posh shoe and designer bag emporia there were never places that I frequented (in fact, I bristled when those businesses replaced some of my favorite collectible record shops), but seeing a cascade of empty storefronts is still quite shocking. I’ve heard similar anecdotes from friends in other cities across the country. Clearly something must be done to turn things around.

Earlier this afternoon, the United States Senate passed an economic recovery package which will now need to be reconciled with the significantly different bill passed by the House of Representatives last week. In order to gain consensus, the senate version stripped away much of what was in the original proposal and added in the Coburn Amendment, a text including the following sentence which has caused quite a debate within the arts community:

None of the amounts appropriated or otherwise made available by this Act may be used for any casino or other gambling establishment, aquarium, zoo, golf course, swimming pool, stadium, community park, museum, theater, art center, and highway beautification project.

Of course, for composers and other people involved in the arts—and obviously also people who work at aquariums, zoos, golf courses, swimming pools, stadiums and even casinos—the institutions which that amendment has deemed a luxury form the very basis of economic sustenance. I don’t know very much about the inner workings of aquariums, zoos, golf courses, swimming pools, stadiums or casinos, but a very large percentage of people I know survive as a direct result of museums, theaters, and art centers, or endeavors that are somehow related to such organizations. And I know from the data compiled in Taking Note that most composers across the United States eke out a living by juggling a wide variety of activities, many of which involve arts organizations. Funnily enough, individual artists, as well as most of the folks who work in the arts sector, work longer hours and earn salaries that are considerably smaller than those of people employed in industries not perceived as “luxury” by folks outside the so-called arts community.

But what happens if and when many of these people also lose their jobs as a result of these institutions’ inability to stay afloat? Their salaries also pay for food, rent, taxes, and even items sold in stores like the ones that used to be on West 8th Street, meaning that they too form an integral part of the economic food-chain.

All too many people continue to think that arts-related jobs are somehow not “real work.” In some ways we have ourselves to blame for this. Though I’m not so sure it’s always completely conscious, we continue to project an image of the arts that is glamorous and elitist and therefore seems far removed from the lives of so-called ordinary people. Music and the other arts are indeed extraordinary. But, of course, there’s also no such thing as ordinary people. We are all extraordinary, which is why we are capable of creating and appreciating art, but somehow that’s not the message we put forward when we propagandize for great works made by great people. The fact of the matter is that most work is created, performed, administered, and appreciated by people who are pretty much the same as the folks who are not currently creating, performing, administering, or appreciating it. And, at the moment, most of us are just as broke.

A visit here is a good place to begin, but what else can we do to make our voices heard?

12 thoughts on “Economic Stimulus

  1. richardsguerin@aol.com

    Dear Frank,

    I have to tell you about my observation of all this. Working in the arts myself, I recognize and am profoundly aware of how the arts enrich our lives. Philosophically, I also agree with you that there should be no institutional belief in “ordinary” people. I recall a visit to Ireland’s totally free National Gallery of Art. I was highly uncomfortable “just walking in”…no infrastructure telling you that you should be giving money or telling you that you should be paying for this. It was simply a part of life in that country.

    Part of my work is directly subsidized by European governments. We discuss constantly the commitment that those countries make, the place the arts has in their collective conscience, and how laughable the NEA is compared, per capita arts spending in these other countries. One giant distinction between our two systems is the tax deduction. America’s rich foot the bill in the name of having to pay less taxes. The non-profit status is one of the last saving graces of our culture. Our arts institutions are free in the same scene that churches are free places of worship. And there is a very wide definition of what it means to be a non-profit (there are multi-million dollar salaries at America’s large non-profit arts institutions). The “rich” are therefore somehow the grailholders of our culture rather than a larger arts subsidy in the form of higher national taxes which is the case in Europe.

    HOWEVER, there is something that is hugely overlooked. We are not Europeans. There is no collective artistic conscience (obligation) to the American Artist or connoisseur. Almost by definition, it’s harder to make it as an artist in America, and if you make it, you are then immediately subject to a new set of pejorative for being “commercial.” I know many artists who are often beat down and humiliated time and time again, applying for grants and trying to justify their vision to various boards of “experts.” This obligation to survive is part of being an American period. In Other countries, a sculptor’s job should be to sculpt, not convince people that they should believe in his sculpture. The built-in set of resiliency is part of what makes some of America’s artists the best in the world.

    My opinion is that where the money comes from does not dictate quality in the arts. In fact, the hostilities American artists face are actually part of our national character. I for one, am usually highly skeptical of artists who have an easy route to fame and fortune. Considering the Pentagon budget or the more than 1 Billion dollars of tax-exempt city bonds that the NY Yankees received to build their new stadium (public money), I do think that America could use a little more awareness of how supporting our artists can help our every day lives in a tangible way….but my expectation as an American is more realistic. It’s not going to happen…and I’m not totally convinced it should.

    Best wishes,
    Richard

    Reply
  2. Ann Millikan

    Americans for the Arts just sent me this:

    Just moments ago, the U.S. House of Representatives approved their final version of the Economic Recovery bill by a vote of 246-183. We can now confirm that the package DOES include $50 million in direct support for arts jobs through National Endowment for the Arts grants. We are also happy to report that the exclusionary Coburn Amendment language banning certain arts groups from receiving any other economic recovery funds has also been successfully removed. Tonight the Senate is scheduled to have their final vote, and President Obama plans to sign the bill on Monday – President’s Day.

    This is an important victory for all of you as arts advocates. More than 85,000 letters were sent to Congress, thousands of calls were made, and hundreds of op-eds, letters to the editor, news stories, and blog entries were generated in print and online media about the role of the arts in the economy. Artists, business leaders, mayors, governors, and a full range of national, state, and local arts groups all united together on this advocacy issue. This outcome marks a stunning turnaround of events and exemplifies the power of grassroots arts advocacy.

    We would like to also thank some key leaders on Capitol Hill who really carried our voices into the conference negotiation room and throughout the halls of Congress: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), House Appropriations Chairman Dave Obey (D-WI), House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Norm Dicks (D-WA), and Congressional Arts Caucus Co-Chair Louise Slaughter (D-NY). We also want to publicly thank President Obama for taking the early lead in recognizing the role of the arts in economic development. These leaders were able to convincingly make the case that protecting jobs in the creative sector is integral to the U.S. economy.

    Reply
  3. pgblu

    I respect Richard’s opinion, and find it very interesting. But he speaks for himself. And for Charles Ives, I suppose.

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  4. Lisa X

    I totally agree with Richard. I would just like to add that music doesn’t need any help. Music has thrived under the harshest human conditions: slavery, arctic weather, genocide, poverty, etc. Music has also thrived in times of greed and gluttony, and everywhere in between. Music is fine.

    Also, the fact that our government wastes tons of money on foolish and evil projects is not a strong argument to throw crumbs around to anyone who asks.

    I don’t think funding has a negative impact. I just think music will be wonderful with or without it.

    Reply
  5. colin holter

    I would just like to add that music doesn’t need any help. Music has thrived under the harshest human conditions: slavery, arctic weather, genocide, poverty, etc. Music has also thrived in times of greed and gluttony, and everywhere in between. Music is fine.

    But imagine how much finer it could be! This stimulus plan will determine a lot of things about the country we’re going to be living in, at least in terms of domestic policy. It probably represents the only chance to make real our speculations regarding what it would be like to live in a place where music is considered part of the infrastructure. Should arts funding crowd out school construction, industrial subsidies, and defense? No, of course not, and nobody’s arguing that it ought to be. Should it be shouldered aside on the principle of “fiscal conservatism” at a time when deficit spending seems to be precisely what the doctor ordered? I think not. There’s a difference between settling for crumbs and being satisfied with settling for crumbs. If we have to do the former, so be it, but we should never do the latter.

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  6. Ann Millikan

    I would just like to add that music doesn’t need any help. Music has thrived under the harshest human conditions: slavery, arctic weather, genocide, poverty, etc. Music has also thrived in times of greed and gluttony, and everywhere in between. Music is fine.

    Clearly you don’t make a living as a freelance composer. We do. Cuts in arts funding mean music organizations that want to commission a composer cannot find the money to fund the commissions. This has happened repeatedly to us in the past several years. We are on the edge, barely paying our mortgage. If we lose our house, we lose our studios, if we lose our studios we lose our ability to work. Music is not a hobby for us, an aside to a day job. It is a business, a living. Music is not fine, it is going from bad to worse, causing real consequences, real dangers, to real people.

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  7. Chris Becker

    Music did not “thrive” under slavery – let’s talk about the slave industry in the U.S. as well as the Caribbean and Cuba.

    Great American music was born out of the slave experience. If it was allowed to be performed by slaves (and often, it wasn’t – especially if it involved drumming) you could argue that it began as a transformed and coded means for communal and personal expression and communication among the slave community. And its function in religious worship cannot be over emphasized.

    But what kind of music created by African Americans during the time of slavery are we talking about here? Music performed in the church? The fields? Or the military? If we go to New Orleans, we have congo square where drumming was eventually stopped for fear of a revolution on the scale of what happened in St. Domingue circa 1791. Louis Gottschalk’s piano piece “Bamboula” was directly influenced by the drumming he heard in New Orleans as a child. No the drumming never really disappeared, and its influence was heard in classical repertoire at the time of Chopin. But does this mean the music was “thriving”? Or under heavy manners?

    Music by the descendants of slaves is usually left on the cutting room floor when so-called “new music” historians discuss the development of composition in the United States. And no, I’m not talking about Duke Ellington. Isn’t the ASO doing a full program of works by William Grant Still soon at Lincoln Center?

    If great music is continually even systematically removed from our history, for me doesn’t mean that music “thriving.”

    What scares me is how quickly we as artists and arts advocates are willing to tow the party line when it comes to our own history, advocacy, and basic survival. Music thrives, but not without casualties.

    Reply
  8. philmusic

    “.. the fact that our government wastes tons of money on foolish and evil projects is not a strong argument to throw crumbs around to anyone who asks. ..”

    Or throw stones either.

    Phil Fried

    Reply
  9. jchang4

    Making a living in the music industry is difficult even in the best of times. It’s an ongoing issue of respect, and those issues don’t go away when the going gets tough.. they only get worse. The way that I’ve been trying to cope in these economic times is just to keep on keeping on, keep in mind what brought you to this crazy business in the first place [ LOVE! :) ]. And remember that we’re all in on this together. Help yourself, of course, but help out your fellow man–or musician–too. We’re all each other’s agents. Some people think I’m strange to be so proactive in helping my friends along, but I only do it cuz I care. And, unfortunately, it seems that few people do.

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  10. coreydargel

    Part of the Stimulus Bill was allocated to local and state governments to prevent budget shortfalls, but it is my understanding that there was also an amendment to prevent Stimulus money from going to, among other things, arts organizations. I understand that the NEA receives an additional $50M, but does anyone know whether state and local arts organizations will receive Stimulus money?

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  11. Ann Millikan

    Corey,

    The Coburn Amendment that prevented arts organizations from getting any stimulus money was thankfully taken out of the final bill. See my “what a relief” post above. States will get NEA money towards the arts but I have no idea how it’s being allocated. I think we should all contact our state arts advocacy organizations and find out how to keep the pressure up on state and local government.

    Reply

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