Monday, February 16, 2009

Bread AND Roses

Extra funding for the National Endowment for the Arts was included in the stimulus package, a paltry $50 million, but it was a tough battle. Republicans called it pork for the lefty elitists. Some Democrats (including Sen. Chuck Shumer and Sen. Dianne Feinstein) thought the bill should only deal with infrastructure, thereby increasing jobs. Still, with the tenacious hard work of other Democrats, including NY Congresswoman Louise Slaughter, the money allocated in the House version was left in after the Senate amendments were beaten back.

What the critics didn't seem to get is that artists and the people who perform duties in support of their art are workers, trying to earn a living just as a rough carpenter does. And their work also has a ripple effect. As the NY Times article noted, Robert Redford's "Sundance Film Festival" brings in $60 million each year to Park City, Utah. Parking lots and restaurants near museums and theaters also see their business increase when those facilities are in operation.

...Patrice Walker Powell, the Endowment’s deputy chairwoman for states, regions and local arts agencies, who has been serving as interim chairwoman since Feb. 2, praised Congress for entrusting the stimulus money to her agency.

“It’s a great opportunity for the cultural work force to be dignified as part of the American work force,” she said in an interview. ...

“I hope the maximum amount of the $50 million finds its way into the pockets of artists and those who support them,” said Reynold Levy, president of Lincoln Center. “An employed dancer is as important as an employed construction worker. His or her family has many needs, owns a home, buys a car and makes an impact on the economy.”

Workers in the art contribute economically, but they do more: they add to the culture of a nation in ways that cannot be measured in greenbacks. Evidence of those contributions from the last time this country faced economic disaster are still around, as Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman reminded us in his wonderful essay on the WPA at Time Goes By:

Indeed, while the WPA mostly worked with bricks and mortar and steel, building theaters and city halls, the WPA gave work to men and women of the arts when no one else could. The WPA Arts project gave us murals by Jackson Pollock in Pennsylvania. Dozens of artists were paid to paint murals in post offices and city halls many of which are still there, or have been transferred to museums for permanent display.

The WPA Theater Project hired out-of-work actors and stage-hands who traveled the country putting on plays, concerts and vaudeville shows in hundreds of towns where people had never seen such a thing. And the Writers Project, which included Richard Wright and Saul Bellow, created dozens of wonderfully written state, city and regional guides, many of which I used as a reporter to learn about the places I covered and lived.

So there's precedent for the inclusion of the NEA in the stimulus package, and I am glad that Rep. Slaughter fought hard and won this battle.

Nicely done, Louise, and thank you.



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