Or do they?
That’s been a relatively visible debate at the local, state and federal level over the past year, as government struggles to reduce costs and keep taxes down despite falling revenues. It can be hard for elected officials to support even a measly few million dollars here or there for arts when education, health care and everything else is getting slashed and gutted. And we know this is happening with individuals as well, as they shift their giving to different priorities.
The arguments in favor of continued arts funding are many, of course. In a bad economy, a lot of these arguments tend to be economic, like in the above-linked op-ed: “But during these challenging financial times, the arts are part of the solution. With investment from all sectors, the arts can bounce back fast and strong, generating more local jobs and economic activity than most other industries.”
I tend to think of the issue more in terms of investment and “the long-tail of the recession.” Even when we’re technically not in a recession anymore, it’s not going to be automatically back to the go-go mid-2000’s. It’ll take years for employment, GDP, the stock market and other major indicators (housing prices!) to return to the levels we saw a few years ago, if ever. A big part of how long that tail is depends on how we manage to make investments in the present despite lack of resources. For example, there is going to be 3-4 years of students who had less teachers or fewer public university slots, and that “lost generation” is going to drag down the economy with it.
Same with the arts. I know we can’t fully measure the impact of creativity and inspiration, et al, that come from the arts, but the less arts and access to them that we have in this period, it creates a similar “lost generation” of people who can’t grow and gain from this vital part of our societal development ecosystem. Plus the loss of economic impact. Plus all the Richard Florida/Creative Class/Who’s Your City stuff of making sure we continue to attract and retain the best and brightest by being a place that they want to live and work.
When someone asks me whether I think we should use our limited tax dollars to invest in homelessness or art, for example, I tell them it’s a false choice, based on assumptions about other spending priorities and the revenue structure. But it’s a real choice unless we actually do something about those other assumptions. The real question is, “How do we structure our revenues and expenses during difficult economic times so that we can meet at least the minimum levels of our most important priorities?”