Wednesday, December 17, 2008

What are we fighting for?

Like pretty much every other arts administrator, I always know the end of the year is going to bring anything but a “holiday” from the year-round demands of hitting budget goals and paying the bills.

That’s true even in a “good” economy, because every good arts organization I know of is always doing more than is possible with less than is needed.

So, December always means a last-minute push to bring in a little more revenue to keep the wolf away from the door just a little longer.

In years like this one, however . . .

Well, most of us have never seen a year like this one!

That’s why I found myself thinking about the Great Depression as I wrote a year-end fundraising appeal.

I don’t mean to say I think that our current economic situation rivals the Depression, as bad as it is. But I do think we can learn some important lessons about the value of the arts from that time. Famously, the federal government created four arts projects, under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration. These projects put artists, writers, musicians and actors to work, but they also did a whole lot more.

For one thing, much of what we now know about the Depression is what we have seen through the eyes of artists like Dorothea Lange, Saul Bellow, Jackson Pollack and hundreds of others who worked under the WPA programs.

But those programs also recognized that the arts are an essential aspect of both our individual lives and our society as a whole. As such, they require our support not only in good times, but especially in bad times—when it’s all too easy to conclude that we can’t afford the arts.

What the WPA demonstrated is we can’t afford to do without the arts.

That’s what I was thinking as I wrote that fundraising letter. If we don’t take care to preserve our art and culture when times are tough, what will we have left when the economy recovers?

I ended the letter with a story about Winston Churchill. The story goes that he was asked at the height of WW II whether he would consider slashing Britain’s arts budget to pay for other programs.

His response? “My God, no! What have we been fighting for?”

How important is government funding for the arts?