Okay friends, I did take a hiatus as a blog writer. Thinking time is important and I needed it. And, truth be told the combination of such giant changes around us combined with the winter months where as a Mom I spend every Saturday and Sunday (at least) getting our sons to some ski hill somewhere in the western US for USSA races….well, blog time got back burnered. You can see why…
But today is the first day of Spring! Let’s get at it.
First off, rumors of the demise of the arts are, to paraphrase the line, very premature. Yes, layoffs and cut backs are real and horrible. My heart goes out to every organization and every individual impacted.
But the arts are not impacted more than the rest of society. Is there an untouched industry out there – particularly one where consumer spending is involved? No. Have we gone through serious recessions before and come out strong? Yes, if you remember 1992, 1982, or 2001.
But let’s use this as a chance to do some real rethinking about our field. I still have my copy of William J. Baumol and William G. Bowen’s classic Performing Arts: The Economic Dilemma. (Cambridge: MIT Press) 1966. It is tattered, and it still rings true. In 1966, they laid out the reality of the structural deficit that defines the performing arts. (Add the visual arts, too.) Since 1966, our field has sought ways to pretend that structural deficit doesn’t exist. Public and private sector funders have sought to support the field around programs and projects, but still haven’t been able to fill the gap that is operations and overhead.
I was so excited when the NEA announced its stimulus funding of staff positions – finally a response to the realities Baumol and Boman mapped out 43 years ago. The unfortunate downside is the temporary nature of the funding – it doesn’t address the long term need that funding has to fill. From my little corner of the blogosphere, I’d champion this as a time for more funders to once and for all address the structural gap. It hasn’t gone away, and it won’t. No amount of project funding or new commissions or special initiatives will cover up the issue.
At the same time as being grateful for the stimulus funding from the NEA, I am terrified – as I hope you are – of Congress’ anti-museums, parks, zoos, botanical gardens stance on stimulus funding. Where did all that vitriol come from and why didn’t we anticipate it? When folks are really strapped for money the way most are today, seniors, families, and young adults flock to free days at museums and free concerts in parks, among other things!
Could it be that we have tried to over-sell the economic benefit argument and have forgotten to mention that cultural gathering places are what hold us together as civil society, bring us together in shared experience, and bring us a combination of civic pride and social engagement?
Or could it be that the arts have a stronger advocacy base to carve out their share of the funds? Despite all the work that scholars have done in the field of cultural policy, and all the applied work I do and so many others do in “cultural development” we still don’t have a cultural sector that works together to advocate for all that is culture. In this time of societal change, what would it take to create that sector, to build our strength, and to finally look at our field as a whole rather than competing interests?
If you think that the arts aren’t getting some of the stimulus funding, check out Stimulus Watch and the other on-line listings of projects put forward for the funds. There are a number of mayors around the US that have inserted very significant capital development projects in the arts. I’m seeing hundreds of millions in arts capital projects, and the roll is growing by the day. So, at the local level, the belief in major civic arts projects as important to our future remains strong.