Few recognize the significant economic contributions that the art world generates through jobs and tax revenue, so it was no surprise that the stimulus package’s allocation of $50 million to the arts was seen by many as a significant sum. In one fell swoop, the National Endowment for the Arts’ budget was increased by about a third.
Maybe it’s just the skeptic in me, but I don’t think anyone on Capitol Hill deserves a pat on the back for throwing artists a few free paintbrushes. The amount reserved for the arts is less than .00000000005 percent of the total package. I don’t mean to be ungrateful, especially after Robert Redford himself had to place a call to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to get her to fight for the funding, but let’s consider some past contributions to and from the art world.
Redford’s own cultural juggernaut, the Sundance Film Festival, generates $60 million in those 10 days of frolicking in Park City, Utah. And according to the Alliance for the Arts, the cultural industries generate $21 billion in tax revenues to New York City. If you look at the workforces of Los Angeles and New York City, 5 percent are employed by arts-related industries. Studies show that in the San Francisco Bay Area, the arts generate $1.2 billion in economic activity each year.
When you do the calculations, the sum allocated to the arts through the stimulus package actually seems a bit stingy. Just to be clear: The financial industry posts losses of $763 billion and tens of thousands of jobs, and the government commits hundreds of billions of dollars to bailing the industry out. According to Americans for the Arts, for-profit arts industries contribute $166.2 billion, generate 5.7 million jobs and return nearly $30 billion in government revenue annually — and they get $50 million from the government.
I know that it’s just billions, not trillions, but at least the arts are giving to the country’s economic health, rather than taking away from it. Think of the billions lost in Ponzi schemes, the billions handed out for corporate bonuses, and the trillions being used to save the financial and auto industries.
The problem with the paltry stimulus funding is that anything seems better than the nothing that the arts usually get; so just funding the arts gets applauded. Truthfully, $5 million would likely receive the same level of applause as $50 million. With the arts, things are usually less linear than just handing money out to fund public art. When we fund the arts with government money, it pays back in ways that are not so easy to put into an Excel spreadsheet, but which remain imprinted on the cultural landscape.
Consider the impact during the Great Depression of the Federal Art Project, which was the arts arm of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock, otherwise known as the Abstract Expressionists, were among the greatest artists of the 20th century; what you might not know is that their success was substantially predicated on funding from the WPA. The project financed dozens of out-of-work artists, backing public artwork, teaching and research around the country. Over the course of the program, which lasted from 1935 to 1943, the WPA funded more than 200,000 art projects. This may seem frivolous to some, but those close to the arts realize that this initiative helped form one of the most seminal movements in art history.
On one hand, what’s done is done, and the arts stimulus allocation is one point in the column for the liberal art lovers. On the other hand, the GOP shouldn’t get too steamed. After all, $50 million is an algebraic joke of a percent in the stimulus package. Given how much art gives the cities and regions in which it resides, this is a bargain-basement price.
Elizabeth Currid is assistant professor at the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development and author of The Warhol Economy: How Fashion, Art and Music Drive New York City.