When Congress began its session on September 9, the members returned to Washington to address many pressing issues for our nation. Of course, whether or not they have any real intention of addressing any of those issues is a matter of debate, and we can leave that shouting match to the circus currently on 24-hour display on the various cable news outlets. But one issue in the budget debate is of crucial importance to musicians and artists, and, indeed, to the next generation of Americans.
One of the proposals to disingenuously address the budget deficit involves drastic cuts to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The cuts, if enacted, would be the largest cut to the NEA’s funding in the history of the agency. Our friends at Americans for the Arts described the proposed cuts this way:
With a 49% budget cut, the NEA will be forced to drastically scale back their grant-making. These disproportionate cuts of $71 million are short-sighted and will ultimately be devastating when combined with the additional loss of $639 million in potential matching funds for the arts. For every dollar the NEA invests in a nonprofit arts organization, it is matched on average 9-to-1 by additional grants. Communities rely on NEA grants to leverage additional support for the arts, generate local economic activity, and fuel innovation. Through the relatively small investments made by Congress, NEA is making possible extraordinary things all across the country, including seeding new jobs in the creative economy.
One of the mythologies of our political system is that the Federal Government spends a disproportionate amount on arts funding, when the reality is that only approximately 0.066% of the federal budget is invested in the arts. This minimal investment yields a return (on a national average) of seven dollars for every dollar spent. Suggesting that any part of the massive federal deficit could be reduced by cutting arts funding is somewhat akin to suggesting that individuals can lose weight by trimming their toenails.
The NEA was formed in 1965 and is dedicated to “supporting excellence in the arts, both new and established; bringing the arts to all Americans; and providing leadership in arts education.” One of the first projects undertaken by the ICSOM founders was to take an active role in the establishment of the NEA through letter-writing campaigns and testifying before Congress.
Now the NEA is once again under attack, though such attacks are nothing new. When Ronald Reagan was elected United States president in 1980, he intended to abolish the agency entirely. President Reagan’s friends in the arts field, influential from his time as the union president of the Screen Actors Guild, convinced him of the importance of the NEA. These friends included Charlton Heston. But the attacks on the agency continued, and in the 1990s Newt Gingrich, then Speaker of the House, again sought to abolish the NEA, along with the National Endowment for the Humanities. In 2012, Mitt Romney stated that abolishing the NEA, along with Public Broadcasting and National Public Radio, would be a “focus” of his administration.
The NEA has managed to survive these attacks because of its importance and relevancy to the national culture. The NEA has even been able to withstand its own occasional lack of political astuteness, as its funding of certain projects has played into the hands of the agency’s political opponents. But the NEA has often lacked an articulate and passionate defender, and many of those controversial projects have been distorted in the media by politicians who would seek to elevate their fame by attacking an easy target that tends not to fight back.
Public arts projects are a soft target for grandstanding politicians. In my home town of Raleigh, a sculpture was commissioned by the Arts Commission in 1995. The sculpture, by internationally respected artist Dale Eldred, was criticized by a mayoral candidate, who lambasted the $51,000 price tag with a demagoguery that swept him into office. But his tenure was unremarkable, as he had no real ideas for leadership, only a penchant for attacks. Subsequent mayors have led our city to be named consistently among the best places to live in America, always citing Raleigh’s many cultural amenities, and the Light + Time Tower still stands on one of the gateway roads into downtown.
But twenty years ago, public art in Raleigh found no truly charismatic defender, and the cause of public art still suffers from a fear of such negative political voices in many communities.
Numerous cities have embraced the cause of public art to great success. Forward thinking communities now see that the beautification of their towns goes hand-in-hand with the revitalization of downtown communities, and enhances the environment for business.
With the renewed attack on the NEA from within Congress, the NEA has lacked a truly charismatic defender at this moment of greatest need. To the dismay of artists everywhere, President Obama has failed to demonstrate a support for the arts, and he has allowed the NEA to go without an appointed chairperson for the better (or worse) part of a year. As if this wasn’t bad enough, the National Endowment for the Humanities has also been leaderless since the spring.
This is unacceptable. The NEA needs a public voice that can lobby Congress and speak with passion in the press about the value of the arts in America. After all, the arts in America lead to over 4 million jobs for our citizens. This is a crucial public issue.
But it is more than that. The next generation is at stake. Scientific research is released on a nearly weekly basis that demonstrates that arts studies for our young people lead to enhanced test scores, lower crime, greater success for individuals, and prolonged mental and physical health.
Our nation cannot afford to neglect this critical issue any longer.
At the 2013 ICSOM Conference in Kansas City, the delegates passed a resolution, sponsored by the Governing Board, calling for President Obama to appoint a new chairperson for the NEA.
In my opening address to the ICSOM Conference, I said: “ICSOM played a role in the creation of the NEA, and we must not stand idly by while it is dismantled….Today we call upon President Obama to appoint a chairperson for the National Endowment for the Arts, and to appoint a charismatic and effective leader who can help fulfill the vision articulated by President Kennedy fifty years ago when he said, ‘I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist.’”
The resolution passed by the delegates will be meaningless unless we raise our collective voices. Today, I ask you all to send respectful messages to President Obama calling on him to appoint a new Chairperson for the NEA and urging his public support for the agency. I ask you to share this message with your friends, colleagues, students, and family members. Let today be the day that the White House hears from the orchestral musicians of America. You can reach President Obama by writing at this link: www.whitehouse.gov/contact/submit-questions-and-comments.
I also urge you to contact your Congressional representatives and send them this strong message. This effort can only be effective if we respond in large numbers; we need every orchestral musician in America to reach out. Possible advocacy points include:
- The arts in America lead to over $135 billion in annual economic activity.
- The arts in America lead to over 4 million jobs.
- Every dollar the government invests in the arts returns seven dollars to the community.
- The arts are widely recognized as critical to the education of the next generation of Americans, and conducive to the health of our nation’s citizens.
- America’s orchestras are recognized among the finest in the world, and play a crucial role in the cultural, economic, and educational health of our nation’s cities.
Hopefully, by the time you read this, President Obama will have appointed a chairperson for the NEA. And, hopefully, it will not be too late to save the agency. But regardless of the actions of this ineffective Congress, our advocacy must continue. Our livelihoods depend on how effective we can be, and the next generation of Americans will benefit from our efforts.