A job-killing plan for arts and culture?

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If you gave me a buck, and next year I returned $18.75 to you, would you think that was a good deal?

I would. With savings accounts, money markets and even stocks yielding just a few percentage points on investments these days, a return in excess of 1800% is pretty staggering.


Yet, that’s what happens with federal support for arts and culture. It pays for itself 18 times over.

Federal support includes partial matches to state arts agencies, underwriting the National Gallery of Art and the Kennedy Center in Washington, the nationwide programs of the endowments for the arts and humanities and much more. My colleague Mike Boehm reports that, all together, federal arts and culture spending currently totals about $1.6 billion a year, not counting construction budgets.

Meanwhile, revenues to federal, state and local coffers related to that spending totals $30 billion annually -- more than 18 times the outlay. The income derives from taxes paid by the 5.7 million workers in the nation’s culture industry, many of whose jobs are sustained by federal support.

Pretty good deal -- especially when stacked up against agribusiness subsidies, military expenditures and other corporate financing from Washington.

Nonetheless, congressional Republicans are once again proposing job-killing cuts to the federal arts budget. They aim to slash it, even zeroing out tiny agencies such as the NEA and NEH, as a report last week from the Republican Study Committee proposed. In these scary, economically strapped times, what passes for an argument is their claim that ‘we can’t afford it.’ But the numbers show the argument is just fear-mongering bunk.

Does all that revenue come directly from federal arts spending? No. Would slashing that spending significantly damage the revenue? Yes. The impact is direct and indirect. Not only can we afford it, we need it -- for the jobs and the return on the investment that federal arts and culture funding provide. Normally, economic indicators are the last reason to tout the benefits of a vigorous U.S. cultural sector. But with official unemployment figures stuck above 12% in California and over 9% nationally, plus deficits everywhere you look, these are anything but normal times.

If the Republican Study Committee’s economic rationale is without merit, it must have another agenda for federal arts and culture cuts. So far, no one in the House GOP has articulated what that reason is.

Recovery in the battered American economy is slow and precarious. Why look an arts gift-horse in the mouth?

[For the record: An earlier version of this post incorrectly said the return was 18%. The correct figure is 1800%.]


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--Christopher Knight