Trickle Down Arts Relief?

Funds from the Obama administration’s stimulus package, the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, are beginning to trickle down across the nation to various arts organizations and museums. $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts was included in the stimulus package, and it is that money that is now being dispersed. Nationwide over 2,400 arts organizations applied for governmental financial assistance, and it is a certainty that many other arts agencies in need did not submit applications. Only 631 arts organizations are to receive government funds – 99 of them are located in California. The Obama arts stimulus plan provides no direct aid to unemployed artists whatsoever.

Artnet News wrote a detailed article about the arts stimulus package funding titled, The NEA’S Totally Random Stimulus Funds. In that story it was stated: “If there is any logic to the distribution of these awards, however, it eludes casual observation.” Artnet News went on to note that: “The museum world, wracked by donor defection and plunging endowments, also gets some emergency support from the NEA, a paltry $2.9 million shared between some 63 different U.S. museums. To put this in perspective, the recent budget cuts at just one museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, were designed to slash $10 million.”

Most of the stimulus package grants being awarded to art institutions and museums are being made in the $25,000 to $50,000 range, enough for an institution’s preservation of one full-time staff position for a year. While cash-starved cultural organizations may certainly welcome these monies, the funding does not begin to address the wave of layoffs, firings, and cutbacks now occurring at art institutions and museums from coast to coast – a trend that is likely to escalate in the months to come as the economy continues to disintegrate. A comprehensive WPA-style plan to support the country’s cultural institutions during a period of economic collapse is urgently required. What the Obama administration has delivered so far is an inadequate and under-funded program that drives arts agencies into competition against each other over meager funds.

As millions of jobless Americans anxiously wait for the stimulus package to take effect, President Obama reacted to doubts being raised over the slowness of his economic recovery plan. Obama said in his July 11th weekly radio speech that his stimulus package “was not designed to work in four months – it was designed to work over two years.” In other words, tighten your belts and be prepared for further loses and sacrifices. With the escalating pace of economic collapse, it will be interesting to see just who and what is left standing two years from now. President Obama moved decisively when it came to a trillion dollar bailout for Wall Street financiers and bankers – but those working class Americans who are losing their jobs and homes will just have to be patient.

With dire economic circumstances as a backdrop, discussions about funding the arts may seem superfluous, but it was during the bleakest days of the Great Depression that artists organized to pressure President Roosevelt to put the nation’s artists to work. As a result FDR formed the WPA Federal Arts Project (FAP), employing some 5,000 artists at a cost of approximately $35 million. Adjusted for inflation an equivalent government arts program would today cost around $468 million, which is a far cry from what Mr. Obama has offered so far.

Art and culture are inextricably bound up in broader social concerns, so when artists lobby for expanded government support of the arts, they must also insist upon full employment, universal healthcare, and housing for all. The nation’s workers – and yes, that includes artists – need the immediate creation of a public works program. Artists made that demand in the 1930s, and they will have to make it again in this day and age.