By May of 1995, the future of federal art subsidies may have been decided in Congress, state budgets may have already been slashed—or maybe not. Frequently, the wheels of government move slowly and haltingly, more like those of a rough-hewn oxcart than a modern car.
You are probably thinking that you do not want to read another article full of statistics justifying government subsidies of the arts! Sometimes we feel as if we were in a constant state of siege. A more positive attitude may entail rethinking our stance. In academia, we know that simply asserting to a class of Freshmen that Beethoven and Stravinsky were great composers is not good enough. We know we must guide those students into the composers' works, allowing them the opportunity to explore the complexities of a creative mind, reach new levels of understanding, and enjoy the results of newly found personal convictions about the music. That personal connection will convince them of the value inherent in the works of those composers.
When it comes to defending the value of the arts to legislators, somehow we are always caught by surprise. We expect legislators to take the value of the arts in our daily lives for granted, simply because we state that they are important. We never tire of leading new generations of students through the joys of musical discoveries. We should not tire of educating new generations of legislators.
Rather than always reacting after the fact, should we not be constantly proactive in ensuring that the arts, as a natural part of the daily lives of Americans, survive into the 21st century? Stephen Butler said in a recent article for the Newsletter of the New York Arts Council, "Our arguments must shift from responding to what politicians say is wrong with public arts policy to promoting the positive values that the arts offer society. We must look at ways to script the next act for the arts movement in the country, capture our audience's imagination and support, and get the message out to the public at large."
Thomas Jefferson claimed that "democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens." Such wisdom cannot be achieved without citizen education. The arts help citizens better understand and appreciate their history, philosophy, and language, giving them the tools to interpret the human condition. Those in the areas of business and commerce know that experience with and education in the arts play a large role in producing a more adaptive, more creative, more productive work force. This means that the citizenry with a love and appreciation of the arts form stronger communities and create a more healthy nation. The task, therefore, is to educate those outside the profession in the political value of the arts.
Statistics concerning federal support of the arts support the notion that modest amounts of funding provide support for hundreds of programs in libraries, museums, public radio and television, schools and universities, community organizations, senior centers, and grass roots initiatives. Eliminating support of the arts does not really save the government money. For every $1 allocated to the NEA, more than $19 are returned in the form of federal taxes, and more than $11 in state and local revenues that are generated through ticket sales, foundation grants, increased tourism, and other business activities. The nonprofit arts industry contributed $36.8 billion to the national economy last year, accounting for 6 percent of the Gross National Product. These figures are impressive and are difficult to ignore. I suspect that the real argument is not how much the arts "cost" the government but whether the federal government should subsidize the arts.
If the arts were beneficial only to the small portion of the population who can be considered "elite," there might be no question but that such "elite" should be responsible for the "luxury" of enjoying the arts. However, access to the arts is a right for all parts of the population, including rural counties, kids in school, and those the government calls "underserved." Therefore, it is proper for governments to help subsidize the arts.
As artists and educators, we need to prioritize our advocacy efforts. While total unanimity of purpose is necessary to carry our message across to "the others," it may not be necessary to espouse the need for total conformity in arts advocacy. Within any movement there arise camps that feel their approach will be more successful than others. Why not use all of the approaches available? Allowing for diversity of opinions might make it easier to earn the confidence of our communities and legislators and to build coalitions with groups outside of the arts.
Let us not become a nation of instant culture, acquired spottily in occasional attendance at concerts and exhibitions. Let us not foster a materialistic culture. If music is a universal language, we must use it to communicate the joys and growth it can foster in the daily life of a nation. It has been said that the most effective advocacy is that which starts at the grassroots level: that means you and me. We are survivors. Let us try to do better than survive—let us help each other thrive.