Arts bailout/stimulus (last time)

The discussion, in so many comments, of my arts bailout post has been terrific. Many thanks to everyone.

In one comment, my friend Chris McGl stressed, as others did, the difference between a bailout and a stimulus, which I’m happy to acknowledge.

Chris also offered a link to data from Americans for the Arts on the economic impact of arts activity. Everyone concerned with this question should look at this data. It’s important, and often cited in these debates:

The $166.2 billion in total economic activity [each year] has a significant national impact, generating the following:

  • 5.7 million full-time equivalent jobs
  • $104.2 billion in household income


But I don’t quite know what to do with these numbers. What’s the baseline? What do other industries contribute? How do these numbers break down from state to state, and city to city? Which kinds of spending for the arts has the most economic impact?

I also think there’s something just a little disingenuous about these arguments. And there’s a pitfall waiting just beyond them. What’s disingenous is that we — people in the arts (among whom I certainly count myself), and especially arts advocates — don’t support the arts because of their economic impact, or their effect on students’ test scores, or for any other reason not directly linked to art itself. We support the arts because we love art, and think it’s good for the world. We then cite extrinsic benefits (to adopt the term that specialists use), like the economicc effect of arts spending, to build a bridge to people who don’t share our love of art, and give them a reason to support us.

Which is perfectly reasonable. Advocates for other industries will do the same. The pitfall, though, comes once we’ve made our economic case. Someone else comes along, and says, “Well, if the point of arts support is to generate economic activity, my own industry can generate even more of it.” And then we’ve lost. This is why the Wallace Foundation, in their “Gifts of the Muse” report, suggested not using extrinsic arguments, and instead stressing the intrinsic benefits of art, which (as I’ve said) is where all of us start in the first place.

It can also be where we end, even if we start with economic arguments. When someone else says that their industry will do more for the economy (and hence should get the money), we’re likely to come back with something about how intrinsically wonderful the arts are, what their moral impact is, how much they make us better people. That, joined with the economic data, becomes our argument.

Americans for the Arts supplements their economic data with a very helpful FAQ, in which they say:

Social service organizations, libraries, and all entities that spend

money have an economic impact. What makes the economic impact of arts

and culture organizations unique is that, unlike most other industries,

they induce large amounts of related spending by their audiences. For

example, when patrons attend a performing arts event, they may purchase

dinner at a restaurant, eat dessert after the show, and return home and

pay the baby-sitter.  All of these expenditures have a positive and

measurable impact on the economy.

And certainly I’ve heard others say that. A friend of mine, highly placed in the music business, said exactly this to me the other night.

The only problem here is that this is exactly the argument made in New York in support of Wall Street bonuses — the very bonuses that raised such fury from ordinary people, and in Washington, from Democrats and Republicans alike, and most notably (most vehemently) from the president. In New York, restaurants are hurting and real estate prices are down, all because people who work in finance don’t have as much money as they used to.

I feel this personally. My wife and I own an apartment in New York. Should we want to sell it, the young, well-off Wall Street people who bid up prices earlier in this decade are largely gone. Or at least there are fewer of them. They’re the ones who bought almost all the apartments that changed hands in our building in the past few years. So our options, if we sold, would shrink — quite beyond the decline in real estate prices that’s the result of the bursting of the housing bubble.

But that doesn’t mean that I support those bonuses. Nor does it mean that people in the city do. In fact, the idea has now been floated that New York’s economy is out of whack, that too much of it depends on Wall Street money, which shrank dramatically when the bubble burst, and may not return. The thought then is to reorient the economy, not to put money back in Wall Street.

The same kind of thinking could apply to this trickle-down effect of the arts, the spending for restaurants and parking and the like. (Assuming those expenditures continue. As the recession grows, aren’t people less likely to eat out when they go to a show?) Let’s say a city’s downtown is full of restaurants, expensive places (where, by the way, I myself love to eat). Let’s say these restaurants would suffer if arts activity should shrink.

Maybe that means we have too many fancy restaurants! Maybe our economy is out of joint. Maybe we’re spending too much money, society-wide, on fancy things (here we can also bring in the high salaries that top people in classical music make), and not enough on health care. Which we know is true!

So then the dinner and dessert argument can start to seem a little hollow. (Though I feel for the unemployed baby sitters!)  And the arts again appear elitist.

We need to do better than that. (Though, God, I love those restaurants.)

(I think this is all I have to say on this subject.)

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  1. says

    I agree that it is best to stress the intrinsic benefits of the arts. I became very uncomfortable when some educators began to tout the “Mozart Effect.,” and we have all received surveys of arts organizations asking us to detail all the financial benefits we provide to the community.

    I should, however, say that I think one of the most important attributes of arts in the schools these days is extrinsic. Just getting young people involved in a school band or choir provides an important activity for the students to learn and socialize in a decent environment. i.e, it keeps them busy doing something productive and beneficial, and teaches them life skills beyond music. Even marching bands make a big contribution to the lives of students that way, and often give them their sole contact with jazz or classical music.

    This is such a timely and important conversation.

    Thanks, Dave. And your point is important, too.

  2. says

    You write in your post:

    Someone else comes along, and says, “Well, if the point of arts support is to generate economic activity, my own industry can generate even more of it.”

    This is missing the point.

    The current issue (or, the issue when you originally posted, since I doubt any arts spending has survived the “sausage making”) is whether or not spending money on the arts in a stimulus package is more effective than spending it on something else in that spending package.

    The main criteria for good stimulus:

    1. has an effective multiplier, i.e., $1 of government spending produces more than $1 in economic benefit.

    2. produces its stimulative effect as quickly as possible.

    The arts spending I’ve heard about seems to me to have been intended rather than for maintaining present arts programs and employment in the arts more than it is for adding new programs and jobs. Thus, it’s very effective stimulus.

    For criterion 1, there is no startup cost — all the money goes towards maintaining present programs that are presently contributing to the economy, so as much as possible of the money allocated flows directly through to the intended endpoint.

    For criterion 2, again, it’s ideal, in that there’s no waiting time — all you’re doing is keeping things going that are already in place.

    Of course, the issue is not “is this stimulus spending good?” so much as “is this stimulus spending better than the alternatives?” That is an argument worth having, but it’s one that can only exist with comparative data about the effectiveness of alternative stimulus programs.

    My understanding was that during the shaping of the President’s proposal, it was difficult to find “shovel-ready” projects sufficient to create a stimulus proportional to the expected economic loss. “Shovel-ready” is just shorthand for my criterion 1, i.e., how quickly the stimulus can start producing economic effects.

    All commentators I’ve heard say that aid to the state governments to help avoid laying off police and teachers and workers in state agencies (as in California’s 2-day furlow) is one of the most effective forms of stimulus — the jobs already exist, and keeping them from going away is going to prop up the economy immediately by keeping it from absorbing a hit in an already contracting environment.

    My understanding is that the proposed arts projects and jobs are like that, in that they don’t create anything new, but just keep arts organizations from shrinking under the onslaught of our massive economic contraction.

    In my opinion, it’s not fair to claim that arts spending does not belong in the stimulus unless you can show that there is some other spending in some other sector that would be equally quick and effective (or moreso) and would support also programs that benefit more people (as part of their secondary effect).

    David W. Fenton

    It’s good to have such clear thinking here. Good for me, certainly. I’d only say that the calculations — so to speak; I doubt if much solid calculating goes on — in all of this are bound to be approximate, at best. And as I said in my first post, it’s when arts funding goes directly up against funding for things like public health — as happened in San Francisco — that the debate gets uncomfortable. I think that’s happening, explicitly or implicitly, all over the country now. And I’m not convinced that people in the arts are confronting that.

  3. says

    I knew Greg would say this, so for what it’s worth, I remember going to a presentation in Philadelphia in 2005 or 6 (can’t remember that well) by an organization called Artspace, who redevelop vacant warehouses and real estate into artist spaces. Anyway, the presentation was on the economic impact of the arts, and there was a comparison of return on investments in the arts vs. sports. Arts seriously trumped sports, though I don’t remember the exact data or source of the data. I can’t find anything on Artspace’s website, which is here:

    Maybe someone from Artspace reads this blog? Or someone from the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance who was at the same presentation?

    In the end, I’m much happier now that I work for an small arts organization where I can finally focus mostly on the intrinsic value of music. All this data is mindnumbing.

    Great example, Chris. I’m sure that arts spending gets a greater return than sports spending. Especially public spending for sports stadiums. That’s a boondoggle, from everything I’ve read. (For instance, Jim Bouton’s book — neglected, I think — about his fight against a new stadium in Pittsfield, MA.)

    And I agree. The discussion about data is mind-numbing, not just for you and me, but for everyone. Which is another political problem. It makes it all too likely that many people will fall back on prejudices, for instance a belief that art is a frill. And thus shouldn’t be included in a stimulus. Again, I think people in the arts haven’t thought enough about how to combat that.

  4. Richard Mitnick says

    The very best bailout/stimulus for “The Arts” is when consumers spend money to buy tickets, art, recordings, whatever, and some of that money goes to the artist.

  5. magus says

    I think one reason that artists so often go for the extrinsic arguments about the benefits of the arts is that arguments for the intrinsic benefits don’t counter a prevailing cultural idea that making art is not work. I feel like artists are expected to do our work on our own time. I sometimes think of this as the “artists’ tax.” You can do your work, but expect not to get paid for it. Many artists work a day job, then put in the time creating “products” that benefit the community at no benefit to the artist other than satisfaction.


    This is something we should never forget. The people who do most to support the arts are artists themselves.