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  • Writer's pictureJeffrey Nytch

We need a bail-out for the arts -- and not just for economic reasons

Updated: Jun 22, 2023

In 2008, the Federal government deemed an $83 billion bailout of the automotive industry essential to stabilizing an economy in freefall. And they were right: the plan saved an estimated 1.5 million jobs and $105.3 billion in tax revenue—not to mention avoiding economic devastation to hundreds of communities, especially in the Midwest. While initially unpopular, subsequent polls have shown the public believes the bailout was a success.

Earlier this year, the airline industry faced its second crisis in 20 years as the pandemic caused travel to plummet. As part of the CARES Act, airlines received $25 billion in loans and grants. In return, the airlines agreed not to furlough employees through September, preserving thousands of jobs and the economic activity those jobs support.

Both the automotive bailout of 2008 and the airline bailout of 2020 prove two points: 1) during times of acute economic crisis, bailouts work, and, 2) when industries that are emblematic of American industrial might are threatened there is broad political support to take aggressive action. While these two sectors have received billions of dollars in government aid during the last two economic crises, another sector of similar size has been all but forgotten: the arts.

Arts and Culture are a significant contributor to our economy, representing 4.5% of GDP or $877.8 billion in the 2017. (In contrast, the automotive industry represents 2.7% of GDP and the airline industry represents about 5%.) And like most sectors, the creative economy has been devastated by the pandemic: an August report from the Brookings Institution estimates that the fine and performing arts had lost 1.4 million jobs—nearly as many as were saved in the automobile industry in 2008—and $42.5 billion in revenues so far in 2020. And those figures leave out the significant multiplying effect of arts spending on the broader economy. But it gets worse: many workers in the arts sector are also freelance contractors, complicating the process of receiving unemployment insurance; many also supplement their living through jobs in the service industry—another sector that’s been decimated by COVID. The result is a double-whammy for both the artists themselves and the many technical and logistical workers who support artistic activity. The CARES act did little to address the crisis: the $75 million allocated to the National Endowment for the Arts was split between state arts agencies, who could distribute the funds as they saw fit, and grants to arts organizations – but only those who had previously received NEA funding. The current relief package being negotiated in Congress is a step in the right direction, allocating $15 billion directly to arts and culture venues that were largely bypassed by the CARES Act. But without significantly more relief from the new Congress it will not even be enough to stop the bleeding. As we look ahead to additional legislation in 2021, we must recognize the essential role of the arts in our economic recovery and take appropriate action to reverse the collapse of this vital industry.

The arts’ contribution to our economic well-being is only half of the story, though. We must look beyond the economic case for arts funding and consider the power of the arts to help restore our belief in each other and heal our bruised national psyche. And because the arts possess a unique ability to bring people together, change hearts, and inspire positive action, they can be potent vehicles for addressing the many critical issues facing our country. For instance, the role of the arts in revitalizing economically-depressed communities is well documented; the National Endowment for the Arts, for example, could partner with the Departments of Commerce and Housing & Urban Development to help boost the recovery of hard-hit communities. The arts can and should play a central role in addressing issues such as racial and cultural equity, climate change, and criminal justice reform, to name just a few. The arts create a bridge between our individual selves and our collective selves, they represent the one universal thing that has held humanity together in every society throughout the whole of our recorded history. In these times of division and strife, we need these qualities more than ever, and the arts can show us the way. We cannot afford to ignore this opportunity.

Such broad-reaching change requires collective buy-in from artists and arts organizations of all types and sizes, from large urban areas to small rural ones, with practitioners representing the full and vibrant array of artistic traditions. And to do that effectively and efficiency we need something else: resources. The NEA budget for fiscal 2020 is $163 million, less than it was in 1989 and only 0.003% of the total Federal budget. Yet research has shown that federal funds spent on the arts leverage significant additional funding from other sources (up to $9 for every $1 of federal funding), and have more economic impact dollar-for-dollar than virtually any other form of government spending. Given the enormous needs facing our nation, dramatically boosting spending on the arts makes economic sense. It also makes sense for our society. President John Kennedy once remarked, “The life of the arts, far from being an interruption, a distraction, in the life of a nation, is very close to the center of a nation's purpose…and is a test of the quality of a nation’s civilization.” The moment before us is a unique one, a chance to bring the arts back into the center of our national purpose, to unlock the power of the arts while addressing issues that are critical to our future as a nation. We must seize that moment now.

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