Arts Advocacy Day was a remarkable experience that provided a first-hand look into how the arts can be used to inform and shape policy. More than 700 artists, activists, arts managers, students, and educators came together from across the country to lend their voices in what has become the largest arts advocacy day in the history of Americans for the Arts. The two-day event packed the rooms of the Omni Shoreham Hotel with many of the breakout sessions and panel discussions having standing room only. No doubt, the large turnout was a result of President Trump’s recent budget proposal which effectively eliminates funding for the National Endowment for the Arts.
The President’s ‘slim budget’ cut funding for dozens of public programs and independent federal agencies including the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (PBS), the National Endowment for Humanities (NEH), and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). This marks the first time any president has completely defunded the NEA since the agency’s creation in 1965. Federal appropriations for the NEA in fiscal year 2017 was $148 million, just 0.004% of the federal budget and 47 cents per capita. Despite the meager amount in federal funding, the NEA has had a direct impact on the lives of nearly every American citizen since 1965. The NEA is responsible for programs like the Big Read, which offers grants to support community-wide reading and literacy initiatives. The NEA also funds programs like “Our Town”, the primary creative placemkaing program that builds and invests in communities across the country. The NEA routinely invests in arts education, dance, design, folk & traditional arts, literature, museums, music, musical theatre, and opera, just to name a few. The NEA also directly funds state arts agencies who contribute additional funding dollars and tailors artistic programs to serve the needs of regional and local communities across the country. Rural communities tend to see far greater impact of NEA funded arts programs than their urban counterparts.
One of the striking things about Arts Advocacy Day was the amount of young people who were there taking part and lending their voice. High school and undergraduate students concerned about their future careers and young artists questioning the type of future they will come to inherit should the NEA cease to exist were present. Every person had a unique story to share about how the arts had a direct impact on their lives through education or engagement and it’s no surprise.
The arts are often described as having both instrumental and intrinsic benefits. Instrumental benefits include economic impact, academic improvement, and measurable benefits to overall health and wellness. Instrumentally, the facts and figures are all there. Arts and culture production is a $730 billion industry, which represents 4.2% of the nation’s GDP. According to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, that’s higher than construction, transportation, tourism, and agriculture. The nonprofit arts industry generates $135 billion in annual economic activity which supports 4.1 million jobs and generates $22.3 billion in government revenue. Every $1 granted by the NEA leverages $9 from private and other public funds. That means the arts are an investment, not a luxury.
Data compiled by Americans for the Arts suggests the arts improve individual well-being, unify communities, improve academic performance, strengthen the economy, spark creativity and innovation, improve healthcare, and promote healing in the military. High school students with routine engagement in the arts score an average of 92 points higher on the SATs. Low income students with high levels of arts engagement are more likely to graduate and 4 times more likely to be recognized for academic achievement. High arts engagement among disadvantaged students is directly related to finding a better job, earning degrees, and volunteering. These are facts. Not alternative facts, not exaggerated facts, just plain facts. The artist Pablo Picasso once said, “We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.” The truth is, the arts are essential. They are primal, and they are necessary.
These sentiments are merely echoes from many of the speakers who contributed their voice to Arts Advocacy Day. These words were reinforced by legendary Broadway actor, Ben Vereen, who described himself as a poor kid from Brooklyn whose life was transformed through the power of the arts. Other speakers included Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis, and chair of the NEA, Jane Cho. The message was clear, beyond the instrumental facts and figures, beyond economic and academic impact, and beyond sociopolitical benefits, the arts define what it means to be human. The arts change and transform lives. The arts build bridges instead of walls. The arts create meaning out of the mundane and allow us to share in the experiences of others.
The intrinsic value of the arts is immeasurable. Engagement in the arts develops personal satisfaction, self-efficacy, and empathy while routine exposure to arts and cultural production leads to greater levels of creativity, innovation, and imagination.
America is the birthplace of blues, jazz, rock ’n’ roll, R&B, and hip-hop. America is a pioneer of musical theatre with groundbreaking works that range from Show Boat to Ragtime to Hamilton. America nurtured some of the greatest playwrights the world has ever known from Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams to August Wilson and Lorraine Hansberry. America bore generations of literary geniuses from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Mark Twain to Langston Hughes. In the visual arts, America has continuously defined and defied genres with artists ranging from Georgia O’Keeffe to Andy Warhol to Shepard Fairey. Time and time again, America has led global innovation in film, music, theatre, dance, architecture, and visual media begging us to ask the question, what exactly is it that makes America great?
In a time of such polarizing divisiveness, the arts become more important, not less. The arts are not a partisan issue. Funding for the arts shouldn’t be either. Tell congress to save the NEA.
For more information on how to become involved, please visit www.americansforthearts.org.
Willie Caldwell is a graduate student in the MFA Arts Leadership program at Virginia Tech. He is an interdisciplinary artist, educator, and arts administrator with a background in theatre, music, music technology, business, and higher education administration. He is actively looking for a job. Visit www.williefcaldwell.com for more information.