August 29, 2011

Rick Steves: "A false austerity is being forced on the finer points of our culture."

Ultra-nice guy and travel nerd Rick Steves donates $1 million to the Edmonds Arts Center, calling on other wealthy individuals to give the equivalent of their tax breaks.  Rick Steves is a righteous dude.

The entire national annual budget for the National Endowment for the Arts - all the arts- is $100 million. The national annual budget for military bands is $325 million, although there was an attempt to cut this by $125 in the recent unholy dust-up.

The non-profit sector in the arts alone generates 168 billion in economic activity every year.  With about 6 million full-time jobs (at least in this 2007 Arts for America study); I've seen elsewhere that the arts are about 6% of the economy.

Calling on offhand fiscal travesties, we still spend $4 billion in annual federal transfer payments to oil companies, not to mention billions in oil producing state subsidies, and billions in federal loans to fraudulent for-profit colleges. All while Exxon and Boeing and Microsoft and Amazon etc etc etc pay 0-10% and bitch ceaselessly about the decline of education.

The arts have been a key model in renewing communities and economies across the country. A dynamic cultural scene, aside from its intrinsic value for full lives and citizenship, is a big reason why Puget Sound and the Bay Area attract business.  We'll be missing huge opportunities through cultural neglect, and, loathing to echo Tom Friedman, we're losing our edge in a set of unforced errors.

This false austerity is the result of shifts in tax burden, not that somehow our economy is smaller than it was 20 years ago, when the NEA budget was also $100 million.  Steves is right - the claims of austerity are false.

I must add an important point: I am not really talking about public acquisition of single art objects, or even direct subsidies of artists, however nice that must have been.   The best efforts should be on work, development and educational spaces, both aspirational, Mass MOCA, (the Torpedo Factory) and local (Edmonds Arts Center.),  affordable housing redevelopment, and broader education. 

It's real estate, man: develop artists reasonable access to work and show space that's integrated with city life, both aspirational  and community level, and good things happen. 

America's prize asset for the moment is innovation and creativity, and I say for the moment, because even here in true blue Washington-  I just spoke to the lonely 7 arts teachers- all the arts -  in a Seattle area school district of 22,000 students, students whose future creativity, I assert, is indispensable for American leadership.  And creativity is not magic, nor even special talent. Like any professional activity, it demands training for advanced practice.
I'll speak later about community cultural effort successes (Seattle) and failures (Anchorage.)


Blogger The Other Front said...

False austerity is exactly right. We have to lay off teachers and cut healthcare for children. But high-speed rail is a "go".

August 29, 2011 at 4:21 PM  

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