Art Works vs Art for Life’s Sake

by Adam Green

in Advocacy

Post image for Art Works vs Art for Life’s Sake

Public funding for the arts is not an easy sell to the unconverted. The recently-retired head of the National Endowment of the Arts, Rocco Landesman, entered the department in the midst of the Great Recession, and acknowledged some of the entrenched antipathy in his first interview after being confirmed. Laying out his game plan for his chairmanship, Landesman said that he’d “focus on the potential of the arts to help in the country’s economic recovery.”

Though some critics took what they considered to be a “market-driven culture” to task, the ensuing initiative and scope was much broader, resulting in the vision of “Art Works.” Described succinctly in this Times piece three years ago, Art Works is “a muscular phrase, intended to persuade Americans — including those Americans who happen to be members of Congress — that investment in art can build stronger communities and revive a flagging economy.”

That idea is mirrored in the research and mission statements of other non-profits, like Berkshire Creative, which not only acts as a networking hub for artists, but also produces reports to show the economic and creative impact the arts have on Western Massachusetts communities.

Americans for the Arts boasts a fine library of documents on their website that tries to quantify the impact, including an overview sheet that shows $135.2 billion in total 2012 non-profit arts organizations’ and audiences’ economic activity.

Whether or not relying on a bottom line profit margin is ultimately an effective course of persuasive action — though I imagine it would make significant inroads with, say, socially-conservative florists as far as gay marriage is concerned — it may be worth looking at a bit, specifically in its effect with theater. At, say, a regional theater that has been the recipient of NEA funds in the past, and recently earned $25,000 for new play development in honor of its 50th anniversary.

Michael Stotts, the managing director of Hartford Stage, broke it down for me in an interview in may: “We have 62 employees, most of whom are full-time, those that aren’t, like stitchers and carpenters, are seasonal, but I count them as full-time employees, because nine times out of ten they return… We have all of these people living here in Hartford, renting apartments, and contributing to the local economy.”

Stotts added an even more obvious point: the tremendous amount of real estate a regional theater commands. “I rent twenty apartments where actors stay, which amounts to $250,000 a year; a 25,000 square foot warehouse (their set shop); the 50,000 square feet of space here (their main offices). So our occupancy costs are quite high. And then there’s all the vendors that we have — the lumber companies, the fabric companies we give money to every year.”

Indeed, a little poking around the Internet Tubes revealed a couple of the theater’s typical contracts with local businesses, hiring services from a construction company, parking services company, and printing press for a combined $574,000 in 2011.

Stotts estimates that “the impact that Hartford Stage makes is quite significant. Probably over twenty million dollars when you use the multiplier effects for dining, shopping, parking, and jobs created because of us. It’s very significant.”

It is indeed significant. On the below pie chart, Americans for the Arts shows the ancillary economic benefits of nonprofit arts attendees last calendar year.
Nonprofit Arts Attendees

And their 2012 National Arts Index findings report that “the arts are an economic force of 113,000 nonprofit arts organizations and nearly 800,000 more arts businesses, 2.2 million artists in the workforce, plus billions of dollars in consumer spending.”

As just a silly actor who’s not very good at extrapolating data points or getting my wiretaps of arts funding discussions within the Capitol to work very well, it’s hard for me to tell what kind of sway the Art Works campaign or any of the other economic analyses has enjoyed with the unconverted. This essay from fifteen years ago, a couple of years after the Contract with America’s budget slashery, is still quite current in examining the proponent-opponent arguments for the NEA.

There are still prominent and vocal politicians who would rather the department not exist,  as evidenced by the House Appropriations Interior Subcommittee House’s proposed cutting of the department’s budget by 49%, and funding is still not close to previous levels, adjusted for inflation (figure below).
NEA Funding Falls

Curiously, in an exit interview this past December, Landesman talked about his accomplishments during his tenure, but noted that “(i)f I was staying on at the NEA, the next conversation I would want to start is around arts education. I believe we are almost at a national tipping point, where we can finally turn the corner in ensuring that every child receives a high quality arts education. In addition to hoping that the next NEA chair is a good person, I also hope he or she has a strong point of view about arts education.”

That’s a very salient point, and one brought up in my conversation with Stotts, who points to the education grants picking up some slack: “One of the key things we’ve done (at Hartford Stage) is grown our education programs, so that they’re bringing in close to $800,000 in grants and revenues. That’s ten percent of the budget, and I think there’s more growth there.”

In that vein, Yo Yo Ma’s excellent speech at Arts Advocacy Day in early April was an interesting divergence from the Art Works idea. Instead of putting the focus on the arts as an economic driver, the renowned cellist made the case that the arts are essential to our culture not only in its positive influence on society, but also in the benefits for children’s education, development, and ultimately, workforce skills. While rebuilding the economy was the focal point during Landesman’s assumption of the NEA chair, Yo Yo Ma’s speech comes at a time when early childhood education is a major project at the White House. One of Ma’s three main goals for American is to “integrate the arts into our educational process in order to prepare our kids for the future.”

Acting chair Joan Shigekawa has been at the helm of the NEA since Landesman left at the end of last year; and there hasn’t been a whole lot of prognosticatin’ over who’s going to assume the chair full time, though this Denver Post editorial had some thoughts on the matter. Whether it’s a public policy wonk, philanthropist, business titan, tech guru, or charismatic celebrity, it’s not an easy role, considering some hostility on the Hill. When asked about qualities for the new NEA chair in the above exit interview, Landesman said that “I honestly believe that the single most important quality is being a genuinely nice person. In the arts and in Washington D.C., so much happens when people want to work with you. It is all well and good to have collaboration mandated or legislated, but it works best when people ask for it themselves.”

I would imagine even before his speech, Yo Yo Ma’s name was thrown about. This NPR piece certainly raises the question without raising the question. The NEA is a government department and one that continually has to make the case that the public should have a hand in funding the arts. Whether “Art for Life’s Sake” will win over more budget hawks than “Art Works” remains to be seen, but it’s certainly worth exploring.

Adam Green is a New York City actor and writer. He’s appeared at numerous off-Broadway and regional theaters, and has premiered works by David Ives, Rajiv Joseph, and Rebecca Gilman. He’s an affiliated artist with the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington D.C., where he’s a two-time Helen Hayes Award nominee and Emery Battis Award winner. He’s played a mute dancing ghost clown at New York City Opera, opened for the Magnetic Fields on tour, edited and wrote for the travel guidebook Let’s Go (Rome / Italy), and run a fantasy baseball league since 1992. Adam received his B.A. in English from Harvard, and his M.F.A. in Acting from NYU.