That Art Sure is Stimulating!

Last time that phrase was uttered, Jesse Helms spent the rest of his career fighting funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, but thanks in large part to the Bush Administration (seriously!), federal arts funding has not only significantly increased in the last decade but also become (*gasp*) uncontroversial! So, we shouldn’t be so shocked that $50 million for arts was included in the final federal stimulus bill.

The whole idea of arts and cultural investments as economic development has really picked up steam in the last decade as well. There’s been a lot of traction nationally on the idea that these activities are businesses that employ people and have economic impact, that they stimulate other economic activities and, of course, (thanks to Richard Florida) that communities can’t really be successful in today’s global economy without them. Where the debate has shifted, though, is to what the proper means and target of that cultural investment should be. How should it be paid for, who should get it and for what?

That discussion is not only being driven by theory but also by practice. The way that culture is created and delivered looks different, in large part thanks to technology and changing social norms of expression and interaction. But that’s not an easy thing to encapsulate, and an even harder thing to fund, especially with public dollars that generally want some measurable return on investment. The one nod to this idea already in the stimulus package is the breakout of that $50 million; a full 40% of the funds bypass the NEA and go directly to state arts agencies and regional arts organizations. Local control is always a great way to ensure that cultural investments reflect the needs and values of the communities that are receiving it.

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