Are the Arts a Good Government Investment?

Musician David Byrne, known for his work with the 1980s pop band Talking Heads, wrote an urgent blog post this month. “I just got back from a rally at City Hall,” he said, referring to a New York City rally to support arts funding. “I spoke very briefly, making the economic and social argument that arts funding benefits the economy and creates jobs way in excess of the amount invested.”

Byrne and others at the rally were protesting a budget request by the White House for Congress to eliminate funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

While the Trump administration has said little beyond the budget proposal itself, conservative commentator George Will and others have made the case. Will wrote in The Washington Post last month that the arts mainly benefit the wealthy, and that the wealthy will support the arts regardless of federal help.

In addition, he said NEA funding, which goes to all 435 congressional districts in the United States, supports projects he does not consider art. The NEA, he said, “defines art democratically and circularly. Art is anything done by anyone calling himself or herself an artist, and an artist is anyone who produces art.”


The prospect of losing their funding is forcing arts organizations to pull out all the stops to show what good the arts do, beyond the fancy doors of museums and music auditoriums. And they question what good it would do to eliminate agencies whose spending combined makes up less than 1 percent of the national budget.

Byrne, the pop musician, said in his blog post: “Investment in the arts doesn’t cost us money — it MAKES us money!”

Attracting funds

The NEA says its budget appropriation for 2016 was $147.9 million, about .004 percent of the federal budget. It says its contributions to local arts institutions resulted in the leveraging of up to $9 million in private and other public funds.


Brad Erickson of Theatre Bay Area, a group representing 300 theater companies in the San Francisco area, clarified the issue in comments to The San Francisco Chronicle last month: “Nobody is getting enough from the NEA to keep the lights on and the rent paid. An NEA grant attracts other money. A dollar from the NEA attracts another $8 in private and local funding.”

The advocacy group Americans for the Arts studies the economic growth that the arts foster in the communities they serve. The group reported that in 2014, arts and culture represented 4.2 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product — a larger share, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, than transportation, tourism or construction.

Further, the NEA says 40 percent of the funding it doles out goes to organizations and activities in high-poverty neighborhoods, where arts education can matter the most.


Wolford McCue, president and CEO of the Arts Community Alliance in Dallas, told VOA that studies have found how important arts activities can be to an individual education.

“Young adults who have been engaged with the arts graduate from high school, junior college and college at a significantly higher rate than those not engaged in the arts,” he said. “Significantly more are gainfully employed, pay taxes, vote and volunteer in their community.”

Controversial content

One argument against arts funding persists from the 1980s, when NEA funding went to a venue hosting an art show of provocative photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe — an artist whose name is now synonymous with controversy. His sexually charged work set off a nationwide debate about obscenity and the role of public funding.

Those who defended Mapplethorpe’s work said he was entitled to free speech. Critics said federal dollars should not be used to support work that some people find obscene.

And that, some arts activists say, may be at the root of the issue. While the arts may look like an extravagance to some, others say shutting off arts funding amounts to stifling speech.

PEN, a writers organization focused on free speech, is circulating an online petition advocating for the NEA and its sister organizations. “Eliminating these vital agencies would lessen America’s stature as a haven for free thinkers and a global leader in humanity’s shared quest for knowledge,” it says.

Support in France

A group of French filmmakers also has rallied in support of keeping U.S. federal arts funding alive, saying defunding the NEA is “muffling diversity” because art enables people on the margins of society to tell their stories.

And in an op-ed piece in The New York Times last month, Eve Ewing, a sociologist at the University of Chicago, said, “Artists play a distinctive role in challenging authoritarianism. Art creates pathways for subversion, for political understanding and solidarity among coalition builders.

“Art teaches us that lives other than our own have value.”

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