Art is Power (to the People)

This is an open letter to the art-loving residents of Columbia, MO. 

Many of you know Kate Gunn, the director of the Artrageous program.  On the program’s blog, she makes a compelling case for the importance of art to a community’s economy.  With formidable citations, she quantifies some of ways in which art spreads prosperity, and why it is therefore a worthy investment even–or especially– in challenging economic times. 

[Check it out here.]

Of course, one would not want to reduce art’s value to its potential to generate money.  Its benefit to the human spirit and the fabric of a culture is ultimately priceless, but this truth sounds like ungrounded idealism during budget talks.  In the context of politics, it is important to note that, contrary to popular perception, art is not a generator of wealth only for an elite group.  A community’s cultural life—its art, music, plays, academic ideas, and the people who make these things—constitutes the community’s voice in wider society.  And this bears directly on the community’s economic strength and autonomy.

To put it on an individual and practical level:  People attending cultural events put money into the local economy, not only by buying tickets and art, but by spending their leisure time and money within the community.  Since Columbia’s locally owned businesses–including art venues, restaurants, and retail stores–are concentrated in the District, this is especially true here.  Visiting a gallery and then going out for dinner is not only a pleasant way to spend the evening, it supports people on all levels of the local economy, from table bussers, to artists, to restaurant and gallery owners.  This creates good jobs, and keeps wealth in the community; it stimulates the economy and helps it rebound in a healthy way.

While it should be apparent that art does not only benefit the set of people who bid on pieces in high-stakes auctions, it remains politically popular to relegate art to status of being a luxury.  True, art cannot be ladled into bowls and fed to hungry people.  But any forward-looking recovery plan must both reduce suffering and bolster the industries that will generate a healthy economy for the future.  Certainly, art is one of those industries. 

Arts advocates had to fight to keep the arts from being excluded from receiving stimulus funding.  In her article, Gunn cites an amendment proposed by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), which would have prevented arts groups from receiving economic recovery funds.  The amendment would have blocked stimulus funds from being applied to “any casino or other gambling establishment, aquarium, zoo, golf course, swimming pool, stadium, community park, museum, theatre, art center, and highway beautification project.”   Initially, the proposal passed by a wide margin—76 to 24—but, in the end, the National Endowment for the Arts won modest funding.  This reflects an ongoing battle.

In her conclusion, Gunn states:

The Art Industry comprises not only of museums, galleries and theatres, but also artists, performers, musicians, and dancers.  The Arts Industry is unique in its ability to impact a wide range of industries, entire societies, and also support schools and governments.  By generating billions of dollars in annual revenue, the Arts are able to provide an economic catalyst on the local, state, and national levels.  Additionally, these economic impacts are felt by restaurants, hotels and retailers who benefit from traffic generated by arts programming.  As studies indicate, areas with prospering art institutions aid an area in becoming, or maintain, an appealing place to live, visit, and conduct business.

Recent economic hardships have impaired the arts industry, slashing funding and forcing some institutions and programming to close entirely.  Declining endowments, the banking crisis, cuts in state and federal funding, and a lowered consumer demand have all impacted the arts leaving many institutions unable to pay staff, continue programming or performances, or even keep their doors open.

It is my own conclusion that art can save us, but first we have to save art.  For it to receive the support it needs, we must defend its value—personally, in the art we generate, in the words we use, and in how we spend our time and money, and also politically.  This is not an abstract idea.  At stake is quality of your own community and your own life.

So go make something, and share it.  Or see what others are making–come to the gallery.  The next Artrageous Weekend is October 7th and 8th–coinciding with the opening of the autumn exhibit at PS:, on Saturday the 8th, 6-9 pm. 

As always, thank you for supporting the arts!



1 Response to “Art is Power (to the People)”

  1. September 30, 2011 at 9:57 pm

    “art cannot be ladled into bowls and fed to hungry people.”

    True, and neither does income determine who has the potential for an artistic soul. I can recall two people I’ve met at the soup kitchen – the first, a one armed man who could paint beautiful landscapes and two, and a man with gin blossoms who fastened complex jewelery out of spare copper wire and sold it to feed his addiction.

    Art is a force that spans the income gap, and even if there were no money from Washington people would still go on creating.

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