Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Arts as Engines of Recovery?

Yesterday a new program designed to boost and coordinate arts funding in the United States was announced. The name of the program is ArtPlace and is composed of "an unusual consortium of foundations, corporations and federal agencies that will use cultural enterprises to anchor and enliven 34 projects around the country, from a struggling city block in Detroit to a vacant school in East Harlem."

The good news is that there does not seem to be any direct government funding used in the program. However, the NEA is involved, so there will be some bureaucratic administration costs funded by the U.S. taxpayers.

Private support or no, I think the initiative faces an uphill battle if they really think that funding arts projects will be a source of sustainable economic progress.  Rocco Landsman uses Keynesian language to explain why the government wanted the funding of the various foundations and corporations coordinated.
"We really need to scale up the resources in the field. It is not going to be through Congressional appropriation.We felt if we worked together and coordinated our efforts, it would have a multiplier effect.
I have explained a number of times in print, however, that there is no net multiplier that magnifies arts funding. Some people will, of course, benefit from arts funding. Others, however, will not.

In explaining why he thinks the project is important, Luis A. Ubiñas, the president of the Ford Foundation, said,
“We need to communicate that the arts are as important as ever, that they can’t be left behind, that they can’t be dropped to the cutting-room floor. Too many people think of the arts as luxuries, as jewels, things that may not be necessary in times of need, things that can be put off. The arts are inherently valuable, and they’re also part of what’s going to get us out of this economic problem we’re in."
It seems pretty clear that Ubiñas is here trying to piggy back the inherent goodness of the arts onto its alleged ability to stimulate economic development. The fact of the matter is, however, there is no clear evidence that arts funding can, in fact, contribute to economic recovery.

Additionally, from an economic perspective, the arts are, like it or not, a luxury. As a musicologist friend of mine told me in response to the ArtPlace proposal,  
Consider every major period of Western history and, from protogeometric Greece to fourteenth century Europe, economic instability has stymied the production of art—and for obvious reasons.  We must eat and find shelter before we do these other activities.  This is not to say that these activities are important.  Reading God’s word is important too.  But if I have to spend all my free hours working or seeking out work, I won’t have time to read God’s word.  So, sometimes the most important (from an absolute sense) things are the things that from an economic point of view we must neglect. 
My friend also noted that there are no descriptions of real art funded by the program. I agree and think it revealing that no actual art works were cited, only “The Arts” with a capital A and that rhymes with Pay. They talk about the “arts” as if it is a single homogenous good. Whereas the arts are, in fact, the quintessential heterogeneous good. Ever art work is unique is a way. You definitely can’t say that all works of art are the same.

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