By Meredith Sellers
An Open Letter to Those Who View the Arts as Expendable:
With Donald Trump’s draconian budget proposal, I’ve seen many people posting online about their horror over funding being cut for programs like NPR, PBS, and Meals on Wheels. They’re sharing the tear-jerking video of beloved children’s television star Mr. Rogers’ plea in front of Congress for funding for PBS, or images of Elmo and Big Bird being given pink slips, of senior citizens receiving their Meals on Wheels, or people talking about how NPR informs their understanding of global issues; the importance of which cannot be understated. However, the cuts that would eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the National Endowment for Humanities (NEH), and the Institute of Library and Museum Services (IMLS) can often seem more abstract and less dire than these popular, need-filling public services. As a member of the Philadelphia arts community and an editor at Title Magazine, a publication that is deeply entrenched in that community, I am here to tell you that cuts to the NEA, NEH, and IMLS affect you more than you know.
I believe firmly that there are many aspects of life that cannot be measured or monetized, and that the value of art far exceeds any monetary value that can be assigned to it, but since conservatives seem to love numbers, let me crunch some for you. According to the NASAA, the arts added more than $704 billion to the U.S. economy in 2013. This amounts to 4.23% of the GDP. By contrast, our budget for the NEA is a pathetic 1/40th per capita of what countries like Germany spend on the arts. We fall far below the averages for other developed nations in public arts spending. Finland, Germany, France, Sweden, the Netherlands, Canada, the UK, and Australia spend between 0.47% to 0.14% of their total GDP on Public Arts, while the US spends a miserly 0.02%. Funding for the NEA, NEH, and IMLS averages just $0.92 per US taxpayer per year, and it has been rightly pointed out, costs less per year than the cost of security for Trump’s wife to live in Trump Tower. According to the NEA itself, “in 2013, 2.1 million workers held primary positions as artists. … In that same year, an estimated 271,000 workers also held second jobs as artists.” According to Americans for the Arts, “Nationally, 702,771 businesses are involved in the creation or distribution of the arts, and they employ 2.9 million people. This represents 3.9 percent of all U.S. businesses and 1.9 percent of all U.S. employees — demonstrating statistically that the arts are a formidable business presence and broadly distributed across our communities. Arts businesses and the creative people they employ stimulate innovation, strengthen America’s competitiveness in the global marketplace, and play an important role in building and sustaining economic vibrancy.”
As many recent studies have demonstrated, the arts have direct, concrete consequences on learning and thinking, and can be applied to a diverse set of skills. Many of the top medical schools in the country are now using art to train medical students to hone observational skills and increase empathy towards patients because it has demonstrated outcomes of better clinical diagnoses, as well as increased self-care and well-being for physicians. This work is a part of a project I’m currently developing with my colleagues at the Mütter Museum to teach medical students drawing and its aim is to increase these skills that will serve them, and every patient they encounter, for the entirety of their careers.
On a personal level, one of my first jobs out of my graduate program was working for the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, which receives funding from the NEA and provides one of the city’s only opportunities for artists to get paid living wages while pursuing their work. At my current position working on Arts and Accessibility programming at the Mütter Museum, many of the projects and exhibitions I work with are funded by IMLS. My partner works at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, handling exhibitions that are funded by NEA or NEH every exhibition cycle. Since 2000, the PMA alone has received nearly $8 million from the NEA, NEH, and IMLS and through it has funded educational programming, digital initiatives, collections cataloging and storage, conservation, and special exhibitions.
My first “real” job was with a Maker program at the Free Library of Philadelphia, which was entirely funded by an IMLS grant. In 2014, the Free Library received a $543,618 grant from IMLS for literacy programming, language classes, computers for job-seekers, and job training. The Maker program I worked with was part of that funding, and it provided jobs for around 15 of the kindest, most creative, dedicated educators I have ever known and brought art and technology to students in low-income neighborhoods who often had no art classes and very limited technological skills. These were great, smart kids – kids who were sometimes only a year or two from trying to apply to college and yet didn’t could type well enough on a computer to distinguish between an apostrophe and a comma. These were kids who had dreams of being engineers, film directors, psychologists, playwrights, and fashion designers, but who often didn’t have enough food to eat on their tables at home. These were kids who, presented with an opportunity to learn and make art, found a safe haven in a local library after school and flourished.
Just this past January, the NEA awarded a $20k grant to Philadelphia Photo Arts Center, a space in Kensington that has boasted truly excellent photographic exhibitions, and also offers affordable classes for aspiring photographers, reasonable high-quality printing for artists, and a computer lab to edit photos on. The NEA recently provided $75k to the Philadelphia Orchestra to do workshops and listening classes targeting Philadelphians who have experienced trauma. The NEA, crucially, also helps provide the mundane but costly expense of funding insurance for works that travel to area museums, meaning that for any blockbuster show – Vincent Van Gogh, treasures from Korea, the recent International Pop exhibition, PAFA’s WWI and American Art exhibition, works by Renaissance masters like Michelangelo and Titian, are likely brought to you by funding from the NEA. Without that, art is less likely to travel, and fewer world-class works from around the globe will be seen locally, thereby diminishing perspectives and the impact of art across the US. The Inquirer stated that “since 2012, 98 Philadelphia organizations have received a total of $7.7 million from the NEA alone.” There are 44,000 people employed in arts and culture in Philadelphia, from curators to educators, from conservators to security guards and custodians. Private philanthropists cannot, and will not, propagate this level of funding.
If you have ever set foot in a museum, or admired a pop star’s dance moves, or found pleasure and comfort in music you heard on the radio, or felt touched by an actor’s performance in a film, know that it doesn’t matter whether those places and people were directly funded by the NEA, which, due to its diminished funding since the Reagan and then Clinton administrations, has already shrunk considerably. But hobbled as it is, the NEA still serves as a public reminder that the arts are here in your communities, here to provide for you, here to inspire you. Art is a part of culture that must be cultivated, and public support for the arts tells artists that they are important, that their work has value, that they are making contributions to society at large, that this work should – must – continue because it nourishes us all.
Yesterday morning, on April 6, 2017, Directors of the PMA, PAFA, and other cultural institutions from the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance took a public stand, providing information about what’s at stake if the funding cuts go through, reciting many of the same statistics I also included here. Call your elected officials, write letters, and demand that these crucial guardians of the arts retain their funding to continue providing cultural services and support for all Americans. This fight is far from over, it has in fact just begun.
Art asks hard questions, holds a mirror up to our culture, and heightens observation, empathy, and critical engagement. Art is capable of communicating complex, contradictory, open-ended ideas. For people who don’t “get” art, it’s true that art is a language that must be learned, like any other, but it’s the most rewarding, constantly changing, paradigm-shifting language I’ve ever learned. A country that doesn’t nourish creative thinking is destined to fail. Defunding the arts is a job-killing, GDP-draining, culturally backwards proposal. America will never be “great” if we drain our cultural institutions, cut funding for science, and eliminate our most robust forms of public arts and education.
Title is soliciting more open letters in support of the NEA, NEH, and IMLS. If you have personal experiences with any of these grants, or programs, exhibitions, or initiatives funded by them, please consider sending us a letter at firstname.lastname@example.org
Here are some tools to take action from the American Alliance of Museums: http://www.aam-us.org/advocacy/urgent-appeal-to-speak-up-for-museums
Please stand with me to save the NEA, NEH, and IMLS.
Editor, Title Magazine
Meredith Sellers is an artist and writer living and working in Philadelphia. She is an editor for Title Magazine, writes regularly for Hyperallergic, and has had her writing appear in ArtsJournal, Pelican Bomb, The Artblog, The St. Claire, and Daily Serving. She has exhibited her work at ICA Philadelphia, Lord Ludd, the Icebox Project Space, and Delaware County Community College, and Vox Populi.