Arts Funding – What is Essential?

In times like these – a tough economy leading to increased need for human services and decreased funds to address those needs – funding the arts can feel like an endless and futile task.

The arts are seen as “superfluous” – the icing on the cake. Yes, study after study shows major economic impact from the arts. Yes, studies show that art has an impact on the very human services funders are focused on in tough times.

But people are hungry! Homeless! The arts will just have to wait.

Hey – hang on a minute!  Isn’t that what we are told about arts funding when times are good?

In every workshop I teach, and after every keynote I give, someone asks as if on cue, “What does all this Community Impact and Creating the Future stuff have to do with the arts?”

My answer is always, “Everything!”

But these days, the more I consider the question, the more angry it makes me that it is even a question. And the more and more angry it makes me that it is a question everywhere I go!

So I have some questions of my own.

What if the arts are not superfluous?
What if the arts are not only “not superfluous” – what if art is essential to our very being?
What if the arts are not only “not superfluous” – what if art is the most important thing funders can fund?
What if negating the arts, de-funding the arts, ignoring the arts – what if that is the root cause of a great majority of our current woes?

Those are the questions I want to explore in the next several weeks. And as I write my way to answers (the only way I can think things through is with a pen or marker or keyboard at my fingers), I will probably find more questions along the way.

I want to consider art NOT for its economic impact, and NOT for its human service impact, but for what it is. I want to explore the meaning of “the arts.” And I want to determine why I have such a visceral and inexplicably sad, frustrated, wanting-to-scream reaction when I am asked, “What does all this talk of Community Benefit have to do with the arts?”

Those are the questions I hope to explore in the next few weeks. Will you help explore them with me?

The art in this post is from perhaps my favorite contemporary artist, Jeane Vogel of St. Louis.  “A Dragon in the Clouds” was produced with manipulated Polaroid emulsion and pastels. “Peace, Love, Luck #1” is infrared photography.  I urge you to visit Jeane’s website, to see her incredible, diverse body of work.  And sign up for her blog – Beyond the Art Fair – which has been a big part of my inspiration for addressing this issue.

4 Responses to Arts Funding – What is Essential?

  1. Thank you THANK YOU for venting your spleen about this. I have been a musician and flute teacher for decades now, and the most infuriating thing I’ve run across is the argument that music education is valuable because it improves student’s math performance, or because it teaches them to overcome obstacles. Why can’t music education be valuable because music is valuable, period? Now, as Director of Development for a summer music program, and as a person who cares very deeply about the suffering of human beings, it is hard to keep the fire lit under me sometimes about the inherent value of music. I mean, don’t people need homes and medical care more than they need music? At these times, I find the old labor song lyrics apply: “Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes; Hearts starve as well as bodies; bread and roses, bread and roses.”

  2. You might enjoy a 2004 Rand Study: Gifts of the Muse: Reframing the Debate about the Benefits of the Arts. I believe it is available (for free downloading) on the Wallace Foundation’s web site.
    The study questions the hard data supporting the peripheral benefits of arts education. In summary, we should embrace the intrinsic benefits for themselves.