Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Let's Not Sell the Arts Short

What do we teach our children? We teach them that two and two make four, and that Paris is the capital of France. When will we also teach them what they are? -- Pablo Casals

Maybe we have only ourselves to blame.

But when it comes to tallying up (and funding) our society’s needs, the politicians – and the public – find it all too easy to sell the arts short.

And not only in times of fiscal crisis. Year in and year out, in good times and bad, policy makers tend to dismiss the arts as somehow frivolous and unconnected to either the psychic or economic well-being of our people and our communities.

Of course, the numbers tell a different story. And so do the personal observations of those of us who spend our working lives either creating art or making it happen.

But the reality is, we simply haven’t told that story often enough or compellingly enough for others to realize that the arts do matter in vital ways.

There must be a million anecdotes that prove the premise in individual lives.

At my own arts center, I can point to a broadcasting executive who actually moved across the river so he could be nearer to the pottery studios and the community of potters that feed his soul during his hours away from the office.

I can also point to a young boy with few material advantages who took a class (also pottery, as it happens) with us nearly ten years ago, at the suggestion of his baseball coach, who saw him starting down the wrong path.

His teacher was the gifted potter John Visser, who quickly pegged the boy a “genius” and approached me about providing a scholarship to keep him in a class his family couldn’t afford.
It wasn’t long before that boy became a role model in more ways than one for his fellow students, all of them adults, all of them far more affluent than he. Just recently, now a young man attending college, he stopped by again just to visit and say “thanks.”

For me, stories like those pretty much say it all. Art matters—and those of us who witness its power on a regular basis need to share those stories on a regular basis.

But we also need to keep in mind that anecdotes don’t tell the full story, not for the policy makers who have the thankless task of divvying up scarce resources, anyway. At that point, we also need to offer up the numbers that reveal just how great an impact the arts have on our economy, even if that impact is less than obvious at first glance. Fortunately, those numbers are compelling, too, just like the personal stories waiting to be told. And, thanks to the wonderful work of Americans for the Arts (, the statistics are readily available and easily localized to any community.

In New York’s 21st Congressional District, where The Arts Center is located, for example, few people would guess that what Americans for the Arts terms “creative industries” provide as many jobs cumulatively as most of our region’s largest employers.

Last year, the figures show, there were 7,152 people working in the arts in the district in 1,191 “arts businesses.” That, by way of contrast, is more jobs than all but a few of the largest and most recognizable employers bring to the region: according to data from (2003), the federal government employs about 8,000 people here; Albany Medical Center some 5,300; and even GE tops out at about 9,000.

At a time when “job creation” is on the minds politicians and the public alike, there’s one more statistic that jumps off the Americans for the Arts charts. In our district, the number of arts businesses grew by more than 10 percent from 2007 to 2008, and the number of arts employees jumped even more, by 15.09 percent.

To me, that sounds like an industry that merits support, when it comes to public budgets and bailouts.

It also sounds like a story each one of us should be telling to voters and elected officials throughout the year. The economic impact of 7,152 jobs is nothing to sneeze at.

Neither, as I see it anyway, is the impact of an economically disadvantaged boy learning his potential from a slab of clay!

If we don’t get that message out to the people who make the policies, we’ll have only ourselves to blame.

How important is government funding for the arts?