Cut Artists a Piece of the Stimulus Package Pie

A Secretary Of The Arts Would Help Secure Creative Jobs In Tough Economic Times


Published: February 26, 2009

During the Great Depression, President Roosevelt created, under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration, the Federal Theatre, Art, Music and Writers Projects, which funded many of the greatest artistic talents of the 20th century: Langston Hughes, Orson Welles, John Houseman, Arthur Miller, W.E.B. DuBois, Elia Kazan, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, John Steinbeck and Jackson Pollock, just to name a few.

During the recent debate on funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), Rep.-Ga. Jack Kingston took the house floor and argued against arts funding, saying, “We have real people out of work right now and putting $50 million in the NEA and pretending that’s going to save jobs as opposed to putting $50 million in a road project is disingenuous.” Amid nasty jabs like Kingston’s and calls to “cut the pork,” Obama and the Democrats attempted to give aid to all the floundering elements of our economy, including $50 million allotted for the NEA. As expected, the bill has been picked apart, battered and dismantled by House Republicans who seem all too ready to dismiss any need for arts funding at all. Despite this conservative clamoring, however, it remains true that the arts funding is just as essential as anything else.

Contrary to what some people seem to think, creative jobs are real jobs. If, as Republicans claim, all the funding in the massive stimulus package should help with job creation, then why are they complaining about the $50 million? There is the same 6 percent unemployment rate in the arts as in the country in general, and the extra funding for the NEA would save the jobs of numerous artists, poets, actors, techies and writers. The average salary for a person in the arts currently hovers around $40,000, so many thousands of artists could be kept afloat with this funding. $50 million in the corporate sector sometimes barely even pays the salary and bonuses of one CEO.

Second, the arts serve a critical social purpose, especially during these challenging times. As we have experienced in previous times of national struggle, the arts serve both to help understand ourselves and to provide us a temporary escape. In the years after 9/11, museums like MoMA created art and photo exhibits that examined the tragedy; small theatres across the country produced topical plays on terrorism and, later, the Iraq war. On New York stages, upbeat, life-affirming musicals like “Hairspray” and “Thoroughly Modern Millie” helped us escape to another place, even if just for a little while.

I’m pretty sure Broadway will stumble through, and the splashy musical will survive even without any government funding (look no further than the dancing green ogre on 53rd street for proof). What is really in danger, however, are the works that will truly examine the disaster this country is in and help begin to make us think about how we got ourselves into this mess to start with.

There is a precedent to government assistance for artists in tough economic times. If the government hadn’t stepped up and funded artists during the Great Depression, they might not have been able to create the works that have shaped us as a culture and a country. Should Congress refuse to facilitate the creation of masterpieces that may be our era’s great works of art?

Perhaps the best solution to the Republican interference in arts funding would be to create a Secretary of the Arts. As soon as Obama was elected, a petition was sent around, mostly by those in the artistic community, to pressure the new administration to create such a position; so far, over a quarter million people have signed. Having such a secretary and department would be a much more stable way to ensure funding, since it is highly unlikely that a cabinet department would be denied a reasonable budget. Artists deserve that budget. As Roosevelt once said, “Hell, they’ve got to eat just like other people.”