January / February 2002 - State of the Arts [ Featuring article on women artists at Burning Man ] ( To Order Back Issues )
At my high school in Norfolk, Nebr., our art classes were held in a large, windowless, irregularly shaped room with exposed ductwork. A room that, I imagine, would have been otherwise used for the storage of folding chairs. A room at the end of a long hallway that wasn't on the way to anywhere else. Forgive me for my melodrama, but I find this tragic. See, Norfolk was not a poorly funded school district. Nebraska is consistently rated among the nation's top five states in education. People might say, "So what's the tragedy? At least you had an art class." But I think decisions about our values start early. Norfolk High's decision to relegate the art classes to the bowels of the school said something. It said, "Art's a waste of time" to the students considering taking art classes; it said, "You don't matter" to the students who took the art classes (and their teachers); and it said, "Only losers spend their time with Art" to the other students. We're living in paradoxical times. Although studies indicate that enjoyment of the arts is on the rise, escalating costs are making it increasingly difficult for not-for-profit arts groups to make it.
Although many of the highest caliber arts organizations are attracting the public more than ever, many are operating at huge deficits. Now, more than ever, we need to let our politicians know that we care about the Arts. It's the only way we're going to save the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) from shrinking into nonexistence. (The NEA is a government agency that supervises the allocation of federal grant money to arts organizations and individuals, including those focussed on dance, theater, literature, film, etc. The NEA also funds arts education. Check out www.arts.endow.gov for more information.) After all, cultural funding is just less than one one-hundredth of one percent (.01%) of the federal government's multi-billion-dollar budget and a measly 36 cents per capita. Furthermore, cutting the NEA would not help decrease the deficit. According to American Arts Alliance, "such a cut could increase the deficit and actually would hurt local economies. The Arts attract tourist dollars, stimulate business development, spur urban renewal, attract new businesses, and improve the overall quality of life for our cities and towns." Nationally, not-for-profit Arts create $37 billion in economic activity, support 1.3 million jobs, and generate $3.4 billion through income taxes. The Arts are good for children, too. Studies show that involvement in the Arts enhances cognitive development, expands creativity, builds self-esteem, encourages discipline, and develops problem-solving and reasoning skills.
For those who feel the NEA be elitist, I'd counter that the not-for-profit arts would become the sole province of the well-to-do without public support. After all, the NEA improves the quality of life for everyone by supporting community events, music groups, art centers, galleries, etc. That's probably why a recent Lou Harris poll indicated that 79 percent of Americans believe that "the federal government should provide financial assistance to arts organizations, such as art museums, dance, opera, theater groups, and symphony orchestras." Almost as many (61 percent) say they "would be willing to pay $5 more in their own taxes per year to support federal government efforts in the arts." The contention that private giving will replace any loss of federal funds lacks basis; corporate support for the Arts has been declining over the past decade. Plus, grants from the NEA also stimulate private giving by often requiring matching funds. As you peruse this issue, keep in mind that all of the amazing artists you will read about are directly threatened by our inaction. Supporting the NEA is a really easy, inexpensive way to ensure that these people can keep creating art for all of us to appreciate. Who knows? Maybe someday my kids will attend a high school where the art classes are in a room with windows, covered ductwork, and a fulfilled teacher. A room in a hallway that leads anywhere a future artist wants it to.
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