Time to Turn the Tide

“Art is a nation’s most precious heritage. For it is in our works of art that we reveal to ourselves and to others the inner vision which guides us as a nation. And where there is no vision, the people perish.–Lyndon Johnson, on signing into existence the National Endowment on the Arts

For ten years, the California Arts Council was 50th out of 50 states in per-capita arts funding. What does that mean? It means that, for every resident, California invested less money in the arts than any other state. Less than, say, Mississippi. Or Wyoming. Or Rhode Island. You get the picture. In the last couple of years, we’ve crept ahead of Kansas and Georgia, making us 48th out of 50. We won this “race to the bottom” in 2003 when the California Arts Council’s budget was gutted by 94%.

Most of us who work in the arts here are well aware of this groan-inducing, eye-rolling fact, and even if you didn’t know it, you’ve felt the effects. If you live in a small, rural area, it’s likely that your local Arts Council is run by volunteers or woefully underpaid staff, which means they have limited capacity to serve their greater communities. (Actually, this is true in some large metropolitan areas as well.) No matter where you live, your schools likely have fewer arts programs than during the California Arts Council’s (comparative) heyday.

When the CAC budget was slashed, it left the field with a greatly diminished state arts agency, which had at one time provided significant operational and programmatic support. Local arts agencies were forced to be scrappy, do more with much, much less – or, in some unfortunate cases, fold.

But let’s go on an even more macro level, and look at the National Endowment for the Arts. The NEA’s funding peaked in 1992 with a budget of $176 million. The “culture wars” (i.e. the controversy over Robert Mapplethorpe and others) resulted in massive cutbacks in 1996 when the NEA budget was itself gutted to $99 million. Since then, the budget has been taking two steps forward, two steps back. In 2013, the NEA was allocated $138 million. To put that into perspective, consider the following graph:

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The graph is a bit old (and hard to read), but the information, sadly, isn’t. (You can see it better here.) Yep, out of the thirteen major countries studied, the US was 13th. We won the race to the bottom again!

Why does this matter, in my wee town of Santa Cruz? Because leadership matters, and like it or not, top-down leadership often has the most significant impact. We grassroots folks can show how we are inspiring children, building bridges, creating jobs, beautifying the world, and changing lives, but if the top leaders and legislators in this country don’t recognize the value of what we do, we’re blowing dandelions in a wind tunnel.

The California Arts Council, Californians for the Arts, and local arts agencies from across this state are working to steer our Golden State ship in a new direction.

I spent Wednesday in Sacramento with these good people where we attended a legislative hearing held by the Joint Committee on the Arts. One of the purposes of this hearing was to introduce and discuss the 2013 Otis Report on the Creative Economy in California. (And for those of you not wanting to wade through 261 pages, here’s a PDF with the salient points.)

The short version is this: the creative industries in California account for 7.8% of the state’s GDP. They generated $273.5 billion in total output, and employed 1.4 million workers who paid nearly $13 billion in taxes that went into the state general fund and to local governments. Yep, we are talking billions.

And yet, our state’s investment in the arts totals about three cents per resident.

California is one of the most creative places in the world. This state is responsible for nurturing wildly innovative businesses and projects that have transformed the world. To not increase our investment in our creativity would be jeopardizing the competitiveness of our country as a whole. The Otis Report puts it this way:

“Since the US economy increasingly depends on the production of intangible goods, it is necessary to recognize that the production of ideas is an important form of investment.”

(Emphasis mine.) And how do we produce new ideas? We give children and adults the opportunity to express themselves, to learn how to think critically, to fail safely and try again, how to work in teams, how to innovate, how to invite inspiration. We do these things through the arts.

Consider this: creators and community members in California are already doing great things with very little support. Imagine a world where we invested in the creativity of our great thinkers, starting from the time they were children. Imagine what we could do, what problems we could solve, what connections we could create. Actually, I can’t imagine. Because the sky would be the limit.

So what are we doing about this? Here’s the big news: two legislators are proposing an increase to the California Arts Council’s budget. This increase is modest when compared to the billions pumped back into the economy by the arts sector. The current proposal would take the Arts Council’s budget from $5 million to $25 million annually. $25 million is equal to the agency’s 1983 budget, adjusted for inflation.

Senator Ted Lieu will shortly introduce this legislation. And Assemblymember Ian Calderon has already introduced a bill that would also increase the CAC’s budget. “We must fund arts programs that reflect the contributions they make to the people of California”, he said.

Sometimes Sacramento seems really far away from everywhere else. It’s easy to think that lawmakers and legislation have little to do with our everyday lives. But I promise you: these funds will make a difference to your children, and your community. With this support, organizations like mine will hire artists to come to your kid’s school. We will produce stronger programming for you to enjoy with your friends and family. We will help artists and designers innovate as they create the next big idea and perhaps one day employ you or your kids.

Art matters. Investing in the arts matters.

So what can you do? Call your State Senator and Assemblymember and ask them to support this legislation. Don’t know who your electeds are? Find out here. Encourage your local elected leaders to contact them as well. Buy an Arts License Plate. They are beautiful and will directly support creative programming. Check the Keep Arts in Schools Fund when you file your taxes, and make a contribution that way. Donate to your local arts council. Ask for arts in your kid’s school. Take your kids to the museum, or the theater, or the library.  Support the arts in whatever way inspires you.

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