I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist. I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft. I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens.
—John F. Kennedy, October 26, 1963
On January 20, all of America celebrated some of the nation’s greatest instrumentalists when Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, Anthony McGill (Metropolitan Opera), and Gabriela Montero performed immediately prior to President Obama’s oath of office. I was privileged to be standing backstage at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis, watching the historic event with the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra. Regardless of political ideology, all Americans could feel pride in celebrating the great tradition of the arts in this country, as represented by some of the greatest musicians of the century.
But less than 20 days after that inspirational moment, the music almost died in Congress.
There can be no doubt that America faces a recession the likes of which most of us have never seen in our lifetimes. As Washington pondered how best to construct a stimulus to our nation’s economy, huge numbers like $800 billion or $900 billion were discussed as if we could possibly comprehend them. Now, as of the Senate’s final action on the package, it is set at $783 billion.
Of that huge number, I saw no appropriation attacked as vigorously as the $50 million that was destined for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). In fact, an amendment proposed by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) was adopted. The Coburn amendment excluded use of stimulus dollars for “museums, art centers, and theaters.” In proposing this egregious amendment, Senator Coburn somehow masterfully (or should I say artlessly) tied funding for the arts to “gambling establishments.”
Through the efforts of artists across the country, over 85,000 letters were delivered to members of Congress urging them to restore funding for the arts to the stimulus package. Thousands of these letters came from symphonic musicians who responded to ICSOM’s appeal to work together through our partnership with Americans for the Arts (AFTA). The advocacy and the activism worked. The Coburn amendment was repealed and the $50 million for the NEA was restored.
As Congress seeks to reinvigorate our economy, I couldn’t agree more that we must analyze the value of every dollar spent. And one of the best possible investments for our dollars is in the arts. According to AFTA, the $50 million in the House version of the economic stimulus package could save well over 14,000 American jobs.
If it is possible to accurately calculate the math on such huge figures, the $50 million that can save these jobs is about 0.006% of the stimulus package. And yet, from media accounts, you would think that the arts are antithetical to the economic recovery, as opposed to a vital component.
The National Review wrote: “The National Endowment for the Arts is in line for $50 million. The unemployed can fill their days attending abstract-film festivals and sitar concerts.”
This statement of course astonishingly ignores the fact that 5.7 million jobs are provided by the arts. And really—sitar concerts was the best they could come up with?
Representative Jack Kingston (R-GA) said (from the Congressional Quarterly): “I just think putting people to work is more important than putting more art on the wall of some New York City gallery frequented by the elite art community. Call me a sucker for the working man.”
Whether or not Rep. Kingston happens to be a sucker, I will suggest that he is terribly misinformed and is merely repeating the tired talking points provided by pundits from over two decades ago.
The press was quick to add nothing to the debate, aside from ill informed stereotypes.
True to form, Congress has loaded the [bill] with hundreds of billions in wasteful spending. The bill includes $650 million for digital TV coupons, $140 million to study the atmosphere and $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts. None of these proposals would create jobs or boost our economy. They’re just old-fashioned waste.
—Op-ed in the Indianapolis Star
The National Endowment for the Arts would get $50 million for new exhibits to deem America racist and sexist.
——Op-ed in the Norwich Bulletin
The arts in America are a tremendous investment, providing an almost unprecedented return. Every dollar that the government invests in the arts returns seven dollars to the community. The $50 million dollars that Senator Coburn attempted to rip from the stimulus package has the potential to return $350 million to nation’s economy. What other elements of the package offer such potential for the value of the taxpayer’s hard earned dollar?
Here is what the arts mean for the economy of our nation each year:
- $104.2 billion in household income
- $7.9 billion in local government tax revenues
- $9.1 billion in state government tax revenues
- $12.6 billion in federal income tax revenues
It is easy for Senator Coburn and the National Review to repeat unchallenged rhetoric from the 1980s about NEA funding of specific projects. But their constituents, and the entire nation, deserve better at this time of economic crisis.
Whether you support the entire stimulus package or not, wouldn’t you like to see a return of 7 to 1 on your tax dollar? An investment in the arts is just that—an investment with tangible returns. The money proposed for the arts will mean jobs for our communities, and will be invigorating for the cities where our children learn, our citizens live, and our companies do business.
There have been several examples of late that testify to the value and effectiveness of the activism of musicians. A petition created by ICSOM musician Jaime Austria (New York City Opera) calling for the creation of a Secretary for the Arts has inspired over 240,000 signatures. And then there are the 85,000 letters to Congress. Out of this bleak economic moment in our country’s history, a new era of activism can and must arise through the spirit of unity among ICSOM and our friends.
We must not be dissuaded by hard times. Instead we must be inspired to voice our beliefs even more clearly, and we must be driven to unite and advocate for our communities.
A few years ago, it seemed to me that the arts were losing the argument of economics. ICSOM sought out a path to increase awareness of the importance of the arts and our orchestras to the financial health of our country. Along the way, we have found a few allies, and won a few victories.
But as I watched Mr. Ma and Mr. Perlman at the inaugural performance, I was struck by the spiritual importance of the moment. It had been a very long time since I had seen classical instrumentalists given such a prestigious honor as to take center stage at the historic moment of a presidential inauguration. It now seems to me that we have an opening to explore a new series of opportunities for the arts in America, and in doing so we must not emphasize only the economic argument to the exclusion of the cultural value of our orchestras. I once quoted a long-lost newspaper article that eloquently reminded us that “[a] civilization is not judged by its ability to generate income.”
Recently, in preparing for a guest teaching appearance at the Colburn School in Los Angeles, I reviewed my remarks to the Federation International des Musiciens in Berlin last year. Some of these words have appeared in these pages before, but at this time of difficulties, I feel compelled to repeat them.
Everywhere we look there is evidence of the power of symphonic music. It is seen and heard through historical events. It was experienced internationally when Leonard Bernstein conducted Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony here in this great city at the fallen Berlin Wall. It is heard on one of my favorite vinyl records; an amazing live recording by the Boston Symphony of Mozart’s Requiem at a memorial mass for President Kennedy in January of 1964. I felt it on the lawn at Duke University immediately following the terrorist attacks of September 11, where thousands of people held candles as they listened reverently to their own symphony orchestra, a scene repeated throughout the world by hundreds of orchestras in hundreds of locations. It is felt in the response of our audiences and seen throughout our communities as we help attract businesses, educate our children, and spread the name of our great cities.
We must remember: this we did with our lives for a reason. While it is and has always been so in vogue for orchestral musicians to be cynical, it is not beyond us to continue to indulge in our dreams. The greatest musicians among us are those who are still inspired by the opportunity to inspire. Through uniting together and reaching out to our communities, we can and will ensure that the arts continue to thrive, and we will continue to enrich the lives of our audiences as we improve the livelihood of our colleagues, all while inspiring the next generation of musicians.
Let our community of musicians serve as an example to those places across the globe that are aching to hear a positive message.
It is a right of the people that they not be deprived of hope. As they hear our music, let them also hear our voices.
We are the advocates for our art form, we are the advocates for our communities, and we are the advocates for our children. Through our music, we offer a message of hope that the world is longing to hear.
Let us not falter in our mission. Let us not be discouraged, but instead let us be inspired to greater activism by the recent successes. As the economy faces the prospect of getting worse before it gets better, we all must be engaged in advocacy for our art form, for our communities, and for our friends. We must not allow hard times to impair our idealism.
I do not doubt that we will weather this crisis, because I have faith in the musicians of ICSOM, and I have been inspired by the unity we have demonstrated. Soon there will be even more opportunities for activism—within our communities, and within our union.
I know we all will respond.