“We Have Real People Out of Work”

“We have real people out of work right now and putting $50 million in the NEA and pretending that’s going to save jobs as opposed to putting $50 million in a road project is disingenuous.” Thus spoke Georgia’s Republican Senator, Jack Kingston on February 5, 2009, on the subject of President Obama’s economic recovery plan, now being debated in the U.S. Senate. Apparently there are many, both in and out of Congress, who do not view artists as “real people.”

The numbers of “real people out of work right now” in the field of the arts is growing exponentially. In an Associated Press article titled, Economic meltdown takes toll on performing arts, AP reporter Gillian Flaccus notes: “From Baltimore to Detroit to Pasadena, venerable performing arts institutions are laying off performers, cutting programming, canceling seasons and doing without new sets and live music. Some are closing down completely. (….) Bob Lynch, president and CEO of the national nonprofit Americans for the Arts, says about 10,000 arts organizations nationwide – about 10 percent of the total – have shut down or stand on the verge of collapse. ‘It’s the worst I’ve seen it,’ Lynch says.”

Representative Jack Kingston does not stand alone, he is but the tip of a spear wielded by political reactionaries who are bent on eliminating all government funding of the arts. On February 6, 2009, as part of its deliberations over the economic recovery plan, the U.S. Senate approved an amendment by Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma. Coburn’s amendment reads in part; “None of the amounts appropriated or otherwise made available by this Act may be used for any casino or other gambling establishment, aquarium, zoo, golf course, swimming pool, stadium, community park, museum, theater, art center, and highway beautification project.” If Coburn’s amendment language is incorporated into the final version of the bill, then arts groups will be barred from receiving any funds from the stimulus package.

Coburn’s amendment clearly is an attack upon the arts in America, and it passed a Senate vote by a margin of 73 to 24. But in advance of your cursing Senate Republicans, dear reader, please consider this; the Coburn amendment passed because of the votes it received from prominent Democratic Senators like Dianne Feinstein of California, Chuck Schumer of New York, Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, and a number of other Democratic Senators.

William Ivey, as head of the arts transition team for the new administration, advised President Obama that “several hundred million dollars” would be needed to provide proper funding for the arts across the United States. I would agree with Ivey on such an amount, but only as a minimum starting figure. Nonetheless, Obama ignored Ivey’s recommendation, proposing instead that $50 million out of the $819 billion stimulus package – or .06 percent of the overall package – be allotted for arts funding, and now even that figure is subject to further reduction.

William Ivey has expressed dismay over insinuations “that an arts worker is not a real worker, and that a carpenter who pounds nails framing a set for an opera company is a less-real carpenter than one who pounds nails framing a house.” I am in full agreement with that sentiment, and challenge the arts community to become active in its own defense. I urge readers to send e-mails to Congress expressing disapproval of the Senate anti-arts Coburn amendment (Americans for the Arts have set up a web page for just this purpose), and encourage one and all to sign the 1% Campaign petition, which calls on the Obama administration to create an Arts Stimulus Plan.

[ UPDATE: The U.S. Senate passed its version of a stimulus bill on Feb. 10, 2009, it includes Sen. Tom Coburn’s anti-arts amendment – which the House version does not contain. The bill now goes to a House-Senate conference committee, which will negotiate a series of compromises. It remains to be seen if Coburn’s amendment will be stripped from the final bill.]