Op-Ed: Public Investment in the Arts Pays Dividends, Promotes Creativity, Preserves Cultural Heritage

JamesStewardBy James Christen Steward

According to Americans for the Arts, the nonprofit arts industry (museums, theater and dance companies, performing arts centers, orchestras, arts councils and others) now generates $22.3 billion in federal, state and local tax revenues annually — a yield well beyond their collective $4 billion in arts allocations, thus making the arts a magnifier of public investment. At the same time, rigorous studies are showing that our brains function better and more fully when we are exposed to the arts, making us better contributors to our society, no matter what our walk of life.

And yet, our federal investment in the arts and humanities remains shockingly low. The claim is regularly made that we as a nation cannot afford to — or perhaps ideologically should not — invest in the arts and humanities as preparation for life, when our focus ought more squarely to land on preparation for jobs. Such a view is not new: In 1967, Ronald Reagan, then governor of California, spoke of “certain intellectual luxuries that perhaps we could do without.” The simple reality, however, is that the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) supports artistic excellence and improves access to the arts by granting funds to nonprofit arts organizations in all 50 states, in some cases making the difference between survival and closure for small arts organizations.

Yet, funding for the NEA has been falling in constant dollar terms for years. In 1993, the NEA received $174 million — equal to $277 million in today’s dollars. President Obama last week proposed a budget of $148 million for the NEA; while it’s a modest gain of $2 million on the current year, it’s still not good enough. By comparison, his budget proposes more than $935 million for the Smithsonian Institution. An average of $3 million per state, or 50 cents per U.S. citizen, is not an investment of which to be proud.

Our schools need more arts education. Students with an education rich in the arts have better grade point averages, score better on standardized tests in reading and math, and have lower dropout rates — findings that cut across all socio-economic categories. Schools, especially those that are struggling, can retain their best teachers by becoming incubators for creativity and innovation, places where students want to learn and teachers want to teach. The sad reality is that, despite including the arts as one of its 10 core academic subjects, the No Child Left Behind law has pushed arts education to the side.

Museums, performing arts organizations, and other cultural nonprofits have long been stepping into the breach to make up for the decline of arts education in our schools. In Princeton, for example, we welcome more than 10,000 schoolchildren each year from throughout the region who come (often subsidized by us) on curricular visits to our galleries at the Princeton University Museum. Many of these are certainly young people who would not experience transcendent works of art were we not able to provide the exposure. But, often, it is these same organizations — again including museums and performing arts groups — that are challenged by the continuing decline of public arts funding in relative dollars.

The situation is probably most perilous in America’s small towns and rural communities, which contain some of the nation’s greatest cultural traditions and yet are particularly at risk when federal funding for the arts remains low. Absent the foundations and private philanthropy that may be readier to support cultural activity in our cities and suburbs, our rural communities rely on support that has been in relative decline for years.

Instead, rural economic development should be strengthened to help these communities promote the richness of their heritage and assist local artists in their entrepreneurship. Strong case studies exist from Maine to Virginia that demonstrate the transformative impact that the so-called “creative class” can have on rural economies. But these small-scale creative entrepreneurs — art makers and artisans, designers and musicians — may not be able to do so without public support.

Across the country, the value of the arts and humanities for their intrinsic merit and as an economic engine is becoming better understood by consumers of the arts, if not by our elected leaders. It is time for the American people to demand public investment in the arts equal to the level of creative vitality in this country, and for our lawmakers at the federal, state and local levels to lead on this important investment in our creative future — not just for our artists, but for American creativity and productivity writ large.

James Christen Steward is director of the Princeton University Art Museum.