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.)