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Craven: Arts and the Stimulus Plan

02/23/09 7:55AM By Jay Craven
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(HOST) During the recent Congressional debate over President Obama's economic stimulus plan, teacher, filmmaker and commentator Jay Craven found himself baffled by the controversy that erupted over the planned allocation of $50 million to the National Endowment for the Arts.

(CRAVEN) The Obama stimulus package comes to a cost of about $2,545 per person-with the proposed arts allocation amounting to just sixteen cents of that. Despite this, when I recently switched on the evening news, the NEA allocation was emblazoned across the TV screen, as the first of three items found "unacceptable" by Congressional opponents.

"What is $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts going to do to create jobs?" fumed Indiana Representative Mike Pence who helped lead the charge against the Obama stimulus bill.

The House approved the arts funds but the Senate rejected them-and specified that no stimulus funding be permitted to support any theaters, arts center, or museums.  NEA funding was restored in the final version.  

I'm always amazed by how small arts allocations continue to generate this kind of hullabaloo.  As for Congressman Pence's argument that arts allocations don't create jobs, he is simply dead wrong. In fact, arts money is one of the government's most effective allocations, when it comes to stimulating economic benefit for very little outlay. Just talk to officials in New York, Philadelphia, Providence, Chicago - and Burlington.

Or check out the recent comprehensive survey, Arts & Economic Prosperity III, which reports how the arts sector is worth $167 billion in economic activity each year to the U.S. economy. This translates into nearly 6 million full-time jobs plus billions in tax revenues for local, state and federal governments.

Indeed, the National Endowment for the Arts' annual budget of $126 million appears to be a pretty good investment, helping to stimulate 100 times that amount in federal income tax revenue and one thousand three hundred times its budget in overall economic stimulation. And arts professionals earn very modest salaries especially compared to the investment services executives who recently lavished billions of dollars in year-end bonuses on themselves, even after federal bail-out funds were allocated to help them out of a pinch.

Despite meager public funding, the arts sector's infrastructure is spread throughout big cities and small rural towns - and its impact is important. Still, the arts are fragile. Vermont's official State Craft Center recently closed its Frog Hollow headquarters in Middlebury - after 38 years. This heartbreaking news comes in the wake of other Vermont arts organization closings. We're losing arts infrastructure.

Virtually every nickel at Frog Hollow supported incomes for 270 Vermont artists, 40 staffers, and 50 teachers who have taught a range of classes to well more than 1,000 people each year. Its scaled-back education program is continuing at satellite locations-and hopes to keep going.

Executive Director Deidre Healy recently explained how Frog Hollow generated more than $20 million in art sales during the last decade-and was serving a new generation of gifted artists and crafts people in their 20's.

Vermont leaders have long articulated their desire to attract and retain young people. A vibrant, broad-based, and sustainable economy is crucial. The arts offer enormous and underdeveloped promise.

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