A Modest Jobs Proposal to Congress and the President: Arts, Culture, History and Heritage

Viewed through any side’s political lens, the unemployment numbers continue to be grim, and the outcomes of the last stimulus package leave Americans unconvinced. So it was interesting last night in the State of the Union as the President asked Congress for a new jobs bill to be readied for his signature as soon as possible. Just what should this new bill fund? The TV commentators couldn’t say, but said Congress will be looking for good ideas from an American public wary of a new stimulus package.

Here’s a modest proposal.

Emphatically, a jobs bill should fund all those nonprofits that create, illuminate, preserve, and share the arts, culture, history and heritage. It should fund that most essential fabric of our communities: our shared cultural heart and soul, that which creates community, celebrates shared experience, builds beauty, and provides a lifetime of education not taught in schools.

What would this include?

How about your community art association? It had to lay off its education and outreach coordinator, its after-school program director, and its curator, and had to ask its executive director – one of those arts-committed leaders who has worked 70 hour weeks for decades – to go half time. As a result, it can no longer offer the free partnership program it had created for the low income housing residents down the street. It stopped its Sunday afternoon family fests. It had to tell the City it could no longer manage the annual Main Street art show. Jobs lost that could be regained: 3. Lives affected by the loss, that could once again be served: 7,000.

How about your local museum, which had to cut so many staff that it can no longer offer interpretive programs or be open for those free Tuesday mornings that used to serve so many seniors and moms with small children. Jobs lost that could be regained: 6. Seniors, moms & tots that could once again thrive on those Tuesday morning programs: 200 a week.

How about your local orchestra, which had gained excellence after the long slow climb to be able to pay professional musicians a decent wage, and through that excellence had built a solid local audience. After years of building many of these orchestras had no choice but to cut those musicians by cutting back rehearsals, cutting weeks, cutting performances. Those musicians: their role in their communities used to go far beyond playing in the orchestra, as most are the people who teach children music lessons and whose (free or very low cost) coaching builds community ensembles, youth programs, and the increasingly important senior music programs. But after wage cuts by their orchestras, many could no longer afford to remain professional musicians, so in the last few years they went to work doing something else. Both they and their communities feel the loss in ripples far beyond the concert hall. Jobs that shrank to ten weeks of part time pay that could expand to 20 weeks of nearly full time pay, providing enough stability so each musician could again offer those lessons and coaching sessions, the summer camps and annual music competitions? 20+, not to mention the regained music librarian job, the custodial job regained because of the regained rehearsals and concerts. Total lives of students and community members served through the reclaimed orchestra: 10,000.

What about your theatre company, the one that closed down completely last year, leaving a staff of everyone from seamstresses and carpenters to bookkeepers, electricians, educators, marketers, and actors relying on unemployment. It was the one that couldn’t raise ticket prices because it knew its community couldn’t afford to pay the real costs of professional theatre, and the bank couldn’t provide loans to make up for the shortfall in annual payouts from its meager endowment after the market crashed. It left scores unemployed within its walls, and left a huge black hole of an unlit marquee in the middle of your once booming theatre district. That once lively street now is scary at night. All those restaurants and cool shops up and down that street? They ended up laying off half their waiters, or closing their shop doors. That meant that the local produce company lost half of its downtown restaurant business, and the local liquor store lost five six of its regular weekly deliveries – a third of its restaurant business. They each laid off a few workers, too. And the motel where all the visiting artists stayed? It lost all that multi-week business and had to lay off 6 housekeepers and front desk workers. Total jobs lost up and down one street and related businesses when the theatre closed, that could be regained: 185. Total lives touched through the theatre, lives that once again could be moved, sometimes even transformed, through the shared experience of live performance: 45,000 a year.

How about that interpretive site in your county or state park, the one that your community members paid for over years of hard fundraising out of pride in local history – or the local science story, the local immigration story, or exploration story, or Civil War battles fought, lost, and won. Those same community members agreed long ago to take on the staffing of those centers, through the “heritage site foundation” they set up so that local government wouldn’t have to carry the bill. The last Federal stimulus bill explicitly said that no government funding would go to museums or parks, so these sites were splat in the middle of absolutely no hope. (Unless, that is, they had a shovel ready trail need, or needed a weatherization team.) But the curator and those two part time carpenters and maintenance guys who built the exhibits and kept them operating, who somehow kept the boiler working and washed the floors and set up the tables and chairs for the community festivals, the fairs, the 4th of July celebration? They lost their jobs last year. The curator now works 10 hours a week, and sweeps, fixes the boiler, and sets up chairs in her unpaid “free” time. They had to tell the County they couldn’t take on the annual multicultural festival this year, the senior and high school art shows had to be cancelled, and there is question about the 4th of July celebration because they can’t afford the wear and tear on the building. Jobs lost that could be regained: 2.8. Lives impacted that could once again celebrate their heritage, teach their children about local history, and come together to share American Independence Day: 15,000 a year.

How about the teen media and film center, where film makers and digital media artists spent every afternoon, every weekend, and every summer day working with teens, training them and turning kids lives around as those teens found their own brilliance in creativity – and went on to top universities and to become the digital and creative entrepreneurs of the future. One by one the artists had to quit to find jobs making digital commercials or working in ad agencies because there was no longer any public or private grant money to pay them. The four hundred kids who called the teen media/film center their creative home have lost it, and with it they lost their ability to receive the training they need to grab entry slots in those top collegiate programs. Jobs lost that could be regained: 5. Teens who could become the creativity entrepreneurs – the Silicon Valley inventors of the future – who could once again be impacted: 400 a year.

I know every one of these organizations, and for every one I’ve written about here I could write about 20 more who had to hand out pink slips over the past two years. The actor who moved to a small town, rebuilt the boarded up Grange Hall and turned it into a theater: now unemployed. The dancer whose modest nonprofit dance company led to the annual community Nutcracker, who had to close the dance company. The Mariachi violinist who had been making a full time living through an arts council program that put violins in the hands and homes of hundreds of low income Latino children? He’s unemployed, looking for a job as a line cook.

There’s been a lot of talk of shovel ready construction jobs as providing infrastructure and as basic and fundamental to community life – employment for the local construction companies. I’d propose that the jobs described here are every bit as fundamental to community infrastructure – our heritage, our history, our creative expression,our families, youth, and seniors. These are jobs fundamental to our collective pride, sense of place, and, yes, our optimism in the future and even our communities’ perceived property values. These are jobs that impact the desirability of our communities as places to live, our economic future, and the ripple impacts of stronger local tax base.

Most funders have historically shied away from funding these jobs. Government has shut most of these jobs out of grant funding, and foundations have said they have to put their reduced resources toward other “fundamentals.” I’d say, put these jobs in a jobs bill, and ask the foundations of this country to match the government support, and magic will happen. Rebuild America? Rebuild our pride and celebration in our communities when they are so shaken? These jobs will do it.

All it takes to regain our shared American pride and celebration is a modest investment in the people who make it possible.

Please, ask your Representative and Senator to put this proposal in the jobs bill, and tell them why.

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3 responses to “A Modest Jobs Proposal to Congress and the President: Arts, Culture, History and Heritage

  1. Thank you Louise! I will forward on to as many as I can. Can’t agree with you more.

  2. Edward Wolverton

    Ireland has a modest- no tax policy for the arts. So any- and all creative art that gives a grain of salt to an artist’s pocket- is his to enjoy in his ow right… and not the host nation that supports taxation on almost everything that is called a creation to progress or wealth. The artist is starving… let me feed myself.

  3. Pingback: Great Arts Blog: A Modest Jobs Proposal to Congress and the President… « Go. See. Do.

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