Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Right Way to Handle an Economic Downturn

Earlier today, I received an impassioned e-mail from an arts lobbying group in New York State, trying desperately to avert a $7m cut in state arts funding. My first reaction was that, although I make my living in the arts as a film and music critic and reporter, I can think of even more worthwhile ways to spend tax dollars. (I spent 20 years as a volunteer in the Buddy Program of Gay Men's Health Crisis, so I'm particularly peeved about cutbacks in AIDS funding at the state and municipal levels, to choose one obvious example.)

Then I looked at a series of stories that appeared in The Art Newspaper, an excellent trade paper covering the visual arts world. The headlines say it all:

Government in France Increases Cultural Spending
Government in Germany Increases Cultural Spending
Government in Israel Increases Cultural Spending

Two thoughts occur to me after reading these stories. First, The Art Newspaper needs some new headline writers and, second and more seriously, here are three western nations, each of them with plenty of problems caused by the worldwide economic -- oh hell, let's call it what it is -- depression, that have decided to use cultural spending as a kind of pump-priming mechanism, secure in the belief that major cultural projects create jobs, promote tourism and help keep money moving through their national economies.

Pretty radical idea, that. Somewhere, Jesse Helms is rotating mighty fast, I hope. In fact, UNESCO has recommended that member states have culture budgets that are 1% of the national budget. I'd love to see Congress implement that number in the U.S. The 2008 federal budget totals $2.9 trillion, which means that NEA funding would be just under $3bn. In fact, for FY 2008, the NEA budget is $144.7 million, the NEA's about the same. There are, undoubtedly, other culture-related items in the federal budget (the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, for example), but I'm betting that they don't bring total to $2.9 bn.

When President-elect Obama is thinking about economic stimulus, I hope he includes cultural funding in his infrastructure package. Franklin Roosevelt did, and the WPA was one of the great examples of what can be done by a government that is willing to put money into the cultural realm without meddling in the content of the programs that result. I guess I will write that letter after all. (And if you are a New York State resident, you can do likewise here.

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