Why Arts?... Why Arts!

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 20, No 1 (Spring 2009)


Many of the feature articles in this issue offer tools for responding to GIA Executive Director Janet Brown's call to speak up, to not sit silently in the back but to stand up and illustrate or make the case for why arts and culture matters. You'll find strong arguments in Claudine Brown's “The Role of the Arts in a Nation that Has Called for Change;” in Bruce Sievers' report, “The Place of the Arts in a Multi-focus Foundation;” and in Arlene Goldbard's “Arguments for Cultural Democracy and Community Cultural Development,” among other pieces.

But we didn't stop with the longer pieces. From GIA's blog, “Economic Turmoil and Change,” we gleaned shorter pieces with the same aim in mind, some that follow here, others that can be found interspersed through the issue. They continue a Reader feature that began almost ten years ago and that has run under the heading, “Why Arts?” In introducing one of these earlier pieces, “The Hunger Is There,” from Studs Terkel's keynote address to the Council on Foundations (fall 2002), we noted that making the case requires adopting “a multifaceted understanding of the many roles that culture, the arts, and artists play in our society, in our neighborhoods, and in our individual lives. Because the roles are many, the ways of stating the case are many.”

“Why Arts?” pieces from the past tend to maintain relevance today. A few that you'll find stored in the library on GIA's Web site include: “The Arts and Philanthropy: Motives that prompt the philanthropic act,” by W. McNeil Lowry; “Art, Agriculture, and Changing Times,” by Mas Masumoto; “Why Be Concerned with Artists,” by Maria-Rosario Jackson; and “Nurturing Artistic Creativity,” by Susan Beresford.

The collection of arguments continues to grow. Each of the pieces that follow, and several others found in this issue, can help change the question mark in “Why Arts?” to an exclamation point. Each strengthens our conviction, “why arts!”


Arts, Culture, and Community Renewal

Jeremy Nowak

Written testimony to the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment & Related Agencies in support of FY10 appropriations for the NEA, March 31, 2009.

As someone that has invested more than a billion dollars into some of America's poorest communities, my interest in a well-funded National Endowment for the Arts is not only a matter of my appreciation for the intrinsic value of art, but is also rooted in what I have encountered over two decades of investing.

The theme of my testimony is simple: arts and culture are important to the development prospects of older American cities and communities and the work of the NEA ought to be viewed as one aspect of a more integrated approach to renewal and development that focuses on maximizing knowledge and creativity throughout our society.

We live in a nation that has sometimes overvalued complex financial instruments while undervaluing the creativity of ordinary Americans. We do so at our own peril. For the past fifteen months I have been a board member of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. It has been a remarkable experience. Interestingly it has given me a new appreciation for the creative sector. A financial crisis such as the one we are undergoing forces us to ask very basic questions about what is important; what have we overvalued for short term returns and what have we undervalued that may result in longer term gain. We have an opportunity and an obligation to re-think this today.

My belief that arts and culture are critical to the regeneration of urban places comes from decades of development experience. … I could give dozens of examples in which we have financed community performance spaces in urban communities where NEA has provided grant funds for performances and installations. The key point here is that NEA support for new productions and installations is a business complement to the rebuilding of commercial and residential real estate in many communities.

Beyond Governmental Silos: The Potential of a Creative Public Sphere: Governments organize streams of funding across a spectrum of organizational and content silos: housing, commerce, transportation, health, and so on. One of the unfortunate consequences of these divisions is the way they structure our sense of reality and our notion of possibilities. This is reinforced by the constituencies of each silo who support the reproduction of current systems; as in most instances it is their only choice. Art and culture funding has been on the defensive for some time and it is natural that we would be here today to advocate on behalf of what is a very small part of the federal budget dedicated to arts and culture.

I would like to suggest that we expand Federal support for creativity by infusing it within other parts of the budget. Take the opportunities that are afforded by transportation, parks, and housing investments. They offer immense possibilities for integrating art into public life. Many cities have a 1 percent or 2 percent rule where every development project that uses public subsidy must dedicate a percentage of the development budget to public art. What if we thought about budgets in these ways and saw to it that the next generation of American infrastructure could transcend the false dichotomy between function and aesthetic possibility.

If we think of public budgets in a creative way, we will stop marginalizing art and culture as a peripheral component of the public good. It will become more central to all that we do.

Jeremy Nowak, president and CEO, The Reinvestment Fund.



Why Do We Do What We Do?

Claire Peeps

You can feed and clothe a person, but to what end? The arts are where we discover and express our humanity, privately or collectively. They provide us the tools to share our common joy and grief, to find communion with each other, to pass our stories and wisdom from one generation to the next. If everything is taken from us but life itself, what remains? Our voices, our bodies. With that alone, our humanity may be preserved.

Claire Peeps, president, The Durfee Foundation, in answer to her own question, “why arts?” GIA Newsletter, 1999.



How Song, Dance, and Movies Bailed Us Out of the Depression

Morris Dickstein

Many were surprised that the final stimulus legislation signed by President Obama preserved a $50-million increase in arts funding that had been the subject of a heated battle in Congress. Though it amounted to only a tiny fraction of the measure's total cost, it had become the target of conservatives, many of whom consider the arts frivolous, elitist and, frankly, left-wing. They showed their disdain in February when they pushed for—and passed—a Senate amendment ruling out stimulus funds for museums, arts centers and theaters.

That shortsighted decision was reversed at the last moment, after supporters made a good case that the arts are often the linchpin of downtown neighborhoods, creating jobs and providing many other economic benefits: stimulating business, promoting urban renewal and attracting tourists.

But was that really the point? Is that really why we need the arts? These days, it seems that every discussion of the economic situation includes the obligatory comparison to the prolonged crisis of the 1930s, yet what the Depression and the New Deal actually showed is that the value of the arts goes well beyond job creation and economic stimulus.

Studies of the 1930s have shown how the economic meltdown was accompanied by psychological depression: loss of morale, a sense of despair, grave fears for the future. Going to the movies or listening to the radio could not solve these problems, but they could ease them in the same way that President Franklin D. Roosevelt's intimate fireside chats boosted morale and restored confidence.

The most durable cliché about the arts in the 1930s is that despite the surge of social consciousness among writers, photographers and painters (some of it supported by federal dollars), the arts offered Depression audiences little more than fluffy escapism, which was just what they needed.

But that's not the whole story. It's certainly a paradox that dire economic times produced such a fizzy, buoyant popular culture. From the warring couples of screwball comedy and the magical dancing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers to the sophisticated music and lyrics of Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, and the Gershwins, the '30s generated mass entertainment legendary for its wit, elegance and style. This culture had its roots in the devil-may-care world of the 1920s, but it took on new meaning as the Depression deepened.

The engine of the arts in the '30s was not escapism, as we sometimes imagine, but speed, energy and movement at a time of economic stagnation and social malaise. When Warner Bros.—which avoided bankruptcy with its lively and topical gangster films, backstage musicals and Depression melodramas—promised a “New Deal in Entertainment,” it was offering the cultural equivalent of the New Deal, a psychological stimulus package that might energize a shaken public.

With his roots in the ethnic slums, the gangster was a dynamic figure who somehow mastered his own fate even as he trampled on other people's lives. Busby Berkeley's showgirls were at the center of glittering fables of success and failure, wondrous changes in fortunes that resonated for '30s audiences. Against all odds, the performers came together into a working community; so did the stricken victims in topical melodramas right up through “The Grapes of Wrath,” who discovered that they were helpless on their own but had a chance if they banded together and helped one another.

If we look at the arts as a life-giving form of social therapy, many other fads and fashions of the 1930s fall into place. The thrust of the culture, like the aims of the New Deal, was to get the country moving again. At cross-purposes in conversation, Astaire and Rogers seem perfectly ill-matched. Endlessly bickering with each other, they can agree on nothing. But once they dance, a swirling poetry of movement takes over.

The public also loved comedies about the very rich. Everyone could feel superior to their silliness, the weightlessness of their lives, yet live vicariously through their energy, irresponsibility and freedom, the snap of their delicious dialogue. Meanwhile, musical standards created a seductive dreamland, somewhere “over the rainbow,” a better world where cloudy skies and rainy days somehow promised “pennies from heaven.”

The propulsive swing music of the big bands, produced by performers and band leaders such as Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman, brought jazz to a mass audience for the first time—jazz to dance to, not simply to listen to. It filled the airwaves, ballrooms, nightclubs, even concert halls.

The visual equivalent of swing music was Art Deco. Gifted designers such as Raymond Loewy, Donald Deskey, Walter Dorwin Teague and Norman Bel Geddes stimulated consumption by putting a fluid sense of movement into everything from locomotives to table radios, projecting the consumer into a streamlined future otherwise hard to imagine. This culminated in the design of the 1939 New York World's Fair, with its flowing crowds and futuristic visions of “The World of Tomorrow.”

Today's economic and cultural climate is still a long way from the Depression, which was already in its fourth year when FDR kicked off the New Deal. A quarter of the workforce was unemployed. The stock market had crashed, and the banking system had failed. Yet there are eerie resemblances, especially in the crisis of confidence that froze credit markets and blasted consumer spending almost overnight in mid-September of last year.

There is little sign so far of how the arts will respond to the damage done to our confidence and morale this time around. But moviegoing has already increased by almost 16 percent this year. We know from the 1930s that the stimulating effect of art and entertainment comes not only in the jobs produced but in the emotional links with the public that absorbs this work and takes it to heart.

The arts can be a lifeline as well as a pleasant diversion, a source of optimism and energy as well as peerless insight, especially when so many people are stymied or perplexed by the unexpected changes in their world. As our troubles worsen, as stress morphs into anxiety and depression, we may desperately need the mixture of the real and the fantastic, the sober and the silly, that only the arts can bring us.

Morris Dickstein teaches literature and film at CUNY Graduate Center, New York. His book, Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression, will be published in September. This opinion piece was published April 1, 2009, by the Los Angeles Times and reprinted with permission.



Arts Included in Stimulus Bill

Patrice Walker Powell

On behalf of the National Endowment for the Arts, I am pleased that the agency has garnered the confidence of members of Congress to participate in addressing this national economic crisis… The arts and culture industry is a viable sector of the economy. Its employees pay taxes and mortgages as members of the American workforce and are being profoundly impacted by the economic downturn.

Patrice Walker Powell, NEA acting chairman, about the arts being included in the stimulus bill.



Attacking the Recession: How innovation can fight the downturn

Hasan Bakhshi

Bakhshi argues that designing the long-term climate for the arts depends on the diagnosis of the root cause of the current economic downturn. He suggests there is more than one way the crisis can be perceived and discusses one of these here.

A “communitarian” interpretation sees ethical failings in the economy that gave rise to the current crisis. The system that facilitated the unbalanced growth of financial markets over other sectors, it is argued, is one that failed to balance individual rights with those of the community as a whole. Bonus-hungry, self-interested investment bankers did not pay attention to the social consequences of their decisions. Policymakers placed undue weight on the power of market institutions, and underemphasised the importance of social capital. The response to the crisis must go way beyond regulatory reform—changes are needed to attitudes in society as a whole.

If in time such communitarian strands of thinking gain influence in policy, new opportunities for the arts may emerge, for the simple reason that no discussion of social and civic responsibility can fail to engage with cultural issues. Even businesses, under pressure from policymakers and the public, may look for ways to demonstrate an increased commitment to society, including support for good causes in the arts.

Perhaps, then, one of the outcomes of the crisis will be a stronger sense of the role of the arts and culture in society, which may present opportunities for creative businesses and arts organisations.

Hasan Bakhshi, published by NESTA (National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts.) www.nesta.org.uk. NESTA's mission is to make the UK more innovative. It invests in early-stage companies, informs and shapes policy, and delivers practical programs to inspire others to solve the big challenges of the future.



The Arts End of the Recession

Marcus Westbury

Recessions can be great times for low budget cultural initiatives. Space—the almost impossible to find holy grail of artists in the boom times—becomes relatively cheap and available. Higher levels of unemployment mean that talent has more time to experiment and innovate and less temptation (or opportunity) to chase big bucks elsewhere.

Large scale cultural production—with its expensive overheads and high costs—becomes relatively more difficult. Small scale production—which works best when there is a very high ratio of initiative and labour to expenses and overheads—benefits immensely from the rapidly falling costs.

Looking at post-boom Melbourne it is easy to forget how much of what I love about this city is the product of the last great recession of the early '90s. Its laneway bars, its smart graffiti, the distinctive inner suburbs of eclectic shops and retail strips, its creative community are not the products of arts agencies or central planning but of the fertile ground, cheap space, and hard-working initiative of a decade ago. A rich ecology not created or forged by central planning but grown in economic detritus and forged in a harsh and searing furnace.

Assuming that the dire predictions of the economic forecasters of a period of recession and stagnation prove true, then we are heading towards a similar point in the cycle again. What will the legacy be?

Marcus Westbury, broadcaster, writer, media maker and festival director in Australia, posted on his Web site, www.crikey.com.au, 2/1/09. Westbury is the writer and presenter of the ABC TV series, Not Quite Art, and the founder of Renew Newcastle, a not-for-profit aimed at turning the city's empty spaces into arts spaces.



Are the Arts a Luxury We Can't Afford during a Recession?

Dudley Cocke

Poor Arts. Seemingly forever tricked out to appear elitist or immoral, she is the face that launched the thirty-year culture wars, which continue today. In the Congressional debate about the economic stimulus plan, there she was, just weeks ago, trotted out on the public stage to represent all that is fat and bloated. Republican politicians sneered as their Democratic counterparts recoiled at the sight of what they have come to regard as a toxic amenity.

Two months ago, the world celebrated the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 27 states: “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.” Despite thirty years of self-serving political trickery and defamation, there persists a robust egalitarian Arts practice, no more luxurious than democracy itself. Let's focus the spotlight there.

Dudley Cocke, director of Roadside Theater, teacher, writer, and media producer. Response to a question posed by the Heinz Family Foundation, February 2009.



This Is Not a Time to Be Shy

Jeremy Nowak

This is not a time for delusional thinking, this is not a time for catastrophic thinking. Things will change. Things will get better. They get better because people take smart actions. They get better because people construct institutions that do a better job of regulating entrepreneurship, not trying to stop entrepreneurship, I mean I'm a capitalist, I believe in entrepreneurial activity and I believe in markets. But they've got to have appropriate levels of regulation, and certainly appropriate levels of transparency, right?

This is a time to be part of that conversation, right?

This is a time in your world to understand that you can't be sort of on the side in the background of this, because you deal with arts and philanthropy, and after all, what is that? What do you mean, what is that? That's damned important! It has a lot more value than some of this other crap that we invested in, right? I'm not saying that as just sort of a throwaway line, I mean it's a time it seems to me to not be shy about this… Our duty is to reclaim our role as citizens and be part of the public dialogue.

Jeremy Nowak, president, The Reinvestment Fund, plenary address, GIA conference, Atlanta, 10/14/08