More Art Less War!

On February 17, 2009, President Barack Obama signed his massive $787 billion economic stimulus package into law. After an acrimonious quarrel in both houses of Congress, the somewhat altered and much trimmed down bill that reached the president’s desk managed to preserve funding for the arts – which at first glance appears to be a victory for arts advocates.

Obama’s Recovery and Reinvestment Act includes $50 million in funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), as well as $25 million for the Smithsonian Institute. A resolution introduced by Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma disallowing arts funding (an amendment that passed in the U.S. Senate by a 73 to 24 margin with the approval of many Democrats) was stripped from the final bill signed by the president. Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, a Democrat from New York who also co-chairs the Congressional Arts Caucus, avowed; “If we’re trying to stimulate the economy, and get money into the Treasury, nothing does that better than art.” If that is the case, then why is such a paltry sum from the stimulus package allotted for the arts? – $50 million is only 0.0063 % of the enormous $787 billion stimulus package!

Temporary acting chair of the NEA, Patrice Walker Powell (the president has not as yet appointed a new head for the organization), said the final bill was “a great opportunity for the cultural workforce to be dignified as part of the American workforce.” Robert L. Lynch, president of Americans for the Arts, stated; “It’s a huge victory for the arts in America. It’s a signal that maybe there is after all more understanding of the value of creativity in the 21st-century economy.” These statements are mere hyperbole. The NEA’s current budget is $145 million, an amount set by the Bush administration, which raises the following questions:

Does an increase of $50 million in the NEA budget actually herald a groundbreaking new era in government support for the arts?

Is $195 million in cultural funding a sufficient amount to meet the needs of a nation as expansive and diverse as the United States of America?

From coast to coast artists and arts organizations are reeling from the effects of the economic collapse. In just one shocking example, Michigan’s Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm has entirely removed arts funding for the state’s proposed 2010 budget. This current fiscal year Michigan disseminated $7.9 million in arts and cultural grants to 290 organizations throughout the state. In an article published in the Michigan Messenger, Mike Latvis, director of public policy for ArtServe Michigan, is quoted saying that the $7.9 million “helped sustain 9,203 jobs, created 2,206 seasonal jobs and added 2,320 new jobs into Michigan’s economy.” Latvis has also noted that “Michigan spends more on prisons in 36 hours than it spends all year on the arts”, a fact rational people will consider a chilling indictment of contemporary U.S. society. Not that my home state of California is doing any better – the California Arts Council (CAC) has a budget of only $5.6 million. The National Assembly of State Arts Agencies (NASAA), placed California last when it comes to funding state arts agencies, noting that the CAC budget comes to a feeble 15 cents per capita – while the national average is $1.35.

Let us for a moment imagine the state of Michigan’s small arts budget as a national average, and that each of the 50 states in the union had an annual arts budget of just $7.9 million. That being the case, countrywide state expenditures on the arts would total $395 million – and we are to celebrate President Obama’s setting national arts funding at $195 million as a victory?

Exactly how much does $200 million purchase these days? Avi Arad, best known as the producer of the Spider-Man movies, has budgeted his upcoming Lost Planet movie at $200 million, which seems the average budget for today’s Hollywood “blockbuster.” Should arts advocates be in a state of high excitement over the fact that a movie based on an Xbox video game has a higher budget than the National Endowment for the Arts?

On the same day President Obama signed the Recovery and Reinvestment Act, he announced plans to immediately send 17,000 U.S. soldiers to the open-ended war in Afghanistan. Some 34,000 U.S. troops are already there, and Obama plans to send an additional 30,000. Since its start in 2001, the war in Afghanistan has cost the U.S. taxpayer $439.8 billion. Thus far, I have no information regarding the monetary costs of Obama’s Afghanistan “surge”, but while 598,000 Americans lost their jobs last month and that rate is not slowing down in the slightest – it is not hard to imagine that an ever-increasing war in Afghanistan is going to be a very costly affair.

While arts advocates are euphoric that the NEA budget is now approaching $200 million, they should stop to consider that President Obama is at this moment moving ahead with a major expansion of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan. With the war in that country now rapidly escalating, the U.S. State Department is starting to solicit contractors to build “staff apartments, compound walls, and compound access facilities on the existing U.S. Embassy Compound in Kabul” – with a price tag of $200 million.