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Congress needs to pass a cultural jobs bill

February 5, 2009 |  5:30 pm

Congress is closing in on the down payment of a huge spending package, designed to create jobs to ward off double-digit unemployment and begin a revival of the tanking U.S. economy. So here is a modest proposal: The federal government — which means you and I — should pump $62 billion into the nation's nonprofit cultural infrastructure.

Yes, that's billion-with-a-b, not million-with-an-m.

Forget about the silly dickering over an anemic $50-million boost for the National Endowment for the Arts. About 100,000 nonprofit arts groups operate in the 50 states. Collectively they employ almost 6 million people. Crisis is a time for boldness, not timidity, and few recall an economic crisis quite like this one. So art museums, symphonies, theaters, dance companies and other cultural centers should get a huge infusion of funds.

Apparently the money is there, waiting to be spent. The question is what to spend it on. The Obama administration has given stimulus plans two goals: to create jobs that move money into and through the faltering economy, and to do it in ways that benefit the citizenry. In both instances, I vote for ballet, not bombs.

F22_j_scott_applewhite_ap That simple, stark distinction is how I came up with my arbitrary cultural funding figure. Separate from stimulus plans, Boeing and Lockheed Martin have been angling for $62 billion to maintain funding for production of their F-22 Raptor fighter plane, and it looks like they might get it — even though the weapon, conceived during the Cold War, is irrelevant to current U.S. security requirements. The Raptor is a fine machine, designed in the 1980s to guarantee American Air Force superiority over the Soviet MiG-40. You may have noticed, however, that the Soviet Union disappeared about 20 years ago. Yet the costly Raptor program lumbers on.

President Obama must decide by March 1 on its continuation. Lawrence Korb, assistant Defense secretary in the Reagan administration and a widely respected national security analyst, has described the F-22 as “the most unnecessary weapons system being built by the Pentagon.” Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, a holdover from the Bush administration, has been critical of its usefulness and cost.

Yet that hasn't stopped 46 senators, led by Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.), senior legislators in the states that primarily build the thing, from signing a letter to the president urging F-22  continuation in the 2010 budget. So have more than 150 representatives in the House. According to Congressional Quarterly, the old pitch that the airplane is a security demand has been gilded with a new one: An ad campaign (above) says the F-22 is now essential to stave off unemployment in a collapsing economy.

The deal will cost the government more than $650,000 per job, which seems rather pricey. It's a make-work scam for the military-industrial complex, which President Eisenhower warned 50 years ago would eventually sink the nation.

By contrast, jobs at stake in the nonprofit cultural sector dwarf those assigned to the fighter plane. The letter to Obama says ...

... the F-22 provides $12 billion annually in national economic activity through 25,000 jobs in 44 states, as well as another 70,000 that are indirectly affected by the program. Meanwhile, the national lobbying group Americans for the Arts says the country's 5.7-million workers in the nonprofit culture industry contribute $166 billion to the annual economy.

Here's one example of how jobs-stimulus money could be productively spent on cultural infrastructure. Ever since it opened a quarter-century ago, the former warehouse space in Little Tokyo operated by L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art has been universally acclaimed as a superlative exhibition venue. The successful adaptive reuse even became a model for other admired projects, including London's Tate Modern and New York's Dia: Beacon.

Geffen_contemporary_brian_vander_br Yet MOCA's aging warehouse has problems. The absence of museum-quality climate controls limits the long-term display of art from the permanent collection, as well as the short-term loan of art from other museums. Curatorial support-space is inadequate, visitor services minimal. As is, optimum potential will never be reached.

MOCA estimates the upgrade cost at about $20 million. The rehab would create and retain construction jobs, directly as well as indirectly from suppliers; ensure future levels of museum employment; and add permanent infrastructure value to the cultural landscape.

Now, multiply that by 100,000. I suspect every one of America's nonprofits has at least one unfunded project that it would like to get going — “shovel-ready,” as it were, even if the job doesn't involve bricks and mortar. A program tour, say, or a schools program. A big-ticket job like MOCA's could get individual scrutiny, but merit review for all of them is hardly practical; so how would funds for a cultural infrastructure stimulus package be allotted?

One way might be to use an institution's most recent IRS statement of endowment funds or operating budget as a percentage yardstick, with minimum standards for stimulus expenditures. (Trust, then verify later.) An endowment or operating ceiling could be established, exempting wealthy outfits with substantial resources even in times of economic hardship. (The Metropolitan Museum and the Getty don't need stimulus.) For arts groups that operate without an endowment, minimum allocations could be established. Eligible organizations could be limited to those founded five or more years ago, guaranteeing basic institutional stability.

Since concert halls, theaters, literary salons and other arts organizations have different operating structures, other jobs-funding methods are surely possible. But for those that accept stimulus funds, socially beneficial strings could also be attached — say, eliminating admission fees to visit the permanent collection of a tax-exempt museum, or lowering ticket prices for performing arts. That would make stimulus a twofer: Cultural opportunities would expand for anyone who wants to participate, a boon during a time of spiraling unemployment and pinching pennies.

Sounds good — but do I really think a beneficial cultural stimulus package has a snowball's chance in Hades of happening? No. How about that wasteful F-22 funding? Yes; in fact I'll be shocked if it doesn't.

Why? Because ever since a bunch of farmers, merchants and other small-businesspeople fought the American Revolution against the East India Company and its nominal CEO, King George III, corporations have been the nation's primary obstacle to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. They still are.

Culture is all about pursuing happiness, so even in a crisis it barely stands a chance. If you doubt it, ask the Wall Street bankers who have gotten hundreds of billions in bailouts and bonuses — and stand to get more. Then ask your senator or representative, who can't get elected without them.

-- Christopher Knight

Photos: F-22 advertising campaign, credit: J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press; MOCA's Little Tokyo warehouse space, credit: Brian Vander Brug / Los Angeles Times

Comments () | Archives (11)

it seems like the government is doing everything they can to help big business turn the u.s. into a third world country, where people have no choice but to take low paying jobs that offer little to it's citizens, but look good for corporations bottom line. let's take that stimulus money and it to improve the failed medical and educational systems in this rotting county.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) has introduced an amendment to prohibit any funds in the economic stimulus bill from going to museums, theaters, arts centers, for renovations, construction or salaries, in a list of others including casinos, golf courses, stadiums, and aquariums.

TAKE ACTION: This amendment may be offered as early as Wednesday, February 4. Call your Senators TODAY and urge them to vote NO on the Coburn "Limitation of Funds Amendment No. 175."

Or visit http://theperformingartsalliance.org/performingarts/home.html to email your senator directly.

The USAF is looking at $3B to extend production of its combat-required F-22 for one year, or $10B for three years. That would guarantee American air superiority for 30 years and maintain 24,000 Californian middle class jobs over the next 3 years at all the Californian suppliers of LM, Boeing and Pratt. Those proud Californians keeping their REAL jobs in this time of uncertainty would do a lot more to support the defense of our country AND our Arts. Your error-filled article does neither. Please do some fact-checking next time before you go trashing a great aircraft. Not needed? Huh? So LA Times knows more than 30+ DoD/DoAF studies that have verified the USAF must have at least 240 F-22! Get real and start worrying about our national defense and our jobs.. For 15% of the money we lost LAST WEEK on assets purchased by TARP we could buy 60 F-22s the AF needs.

I had an idea a while back, about corporations getting tax breaks for hiring artists on their payroll. I call it "Hire an Artist." A company, say, Microsoft, hires 250 artists as full-time employees. They pay them, say, $50,000/year, for 4 years.They just pay the artists, so they can create without having to worry about getting some other job that keeps them from creating. Microsoft would not get anything out of it except for tax breaks and the ability to say they are patrons of the arts to the tune of $1.25 million. If the artists sell work, they make more money. Maybe a portion of it goes to the charity of Microsoft's choice. Maybe the artist has to present before a review board once a year, to show what they have been doing. As long as the artists are producing something, they should get to continue on the plan. If they cannot show they've been creating a reasonable amount of artwork, then their participation would be terminated. Every 4 years the contract would come up for renewal.

$1.25 million to support 250 artists is not a whole lot of money. Imagine if a bunch of multimillion and billion-dollar companies would hire a number of artists. We would have a serious infusion of culture. We don't have the Medicis to support us...maybe this would be the way.

If anyone can help me make this happen, email me at [email protected]

So the Air Fa..er, Force needs $10 billion for its latest tin turkey to maintain air-warfare "superiority"?

Over what?

Hmmm, you guys really need to get your facts right. I think the argument about whether to continue production of the F-22 is a valid question, but your figures are plain wrong! The raptor (F-22) right now coast about $140 million per copy. In other words if Lockheed Martiin and boeing were able to extend another 60 over three years, it would cost roughly $2.8 billion per year times 3 years which would come to $8.4 billion plus a little inflation. That is almost an order of magnitude lower then the numbers you cite. I agree it is a lot of money, but please don't exaduate things.

Also there is no Mig-40 and if anything it was designed to comete with the Su-30 and future fighters to be designed by russia perhaps in collaboration with china.

There are more points I could mention, but I understand this was a bit of a tounge in cheek comentary about how much money is being spent. I am a supporter of cultural instiutions but they could not even absorb the sums of money you are talking about in an effective manner. I hope congress restores funding for the arts, but don't inflate the target of your wrath :) ...

OK, so I'm not a mathematician.

I said 1.25 million dollars would fund 250 artists at $50,000 each for a year.

I meant 12.5 million. A significantly higher amount, but still doable. 5 million would fund 100 artists. With a tax break for doing the right thing and a willingness to help fund a new creative renaissance, maybe it would be a positive direction for the country.

For me the jury is still out on the F-22. I am digging around and seeing issues reported on it that have me concerned. If we are going to continue funding on the aircraft, I would like to be sure we have done our actual fact checking FIRST.

Does the F-22 do what it was designed to do? I am seeing reports of supposed structural weakness which could cause the plane to crack up literally while in combat. There are reports of issues with the electronics.
These are all things I would like to understand & before I put my name to supporting it.

One article complained about how (now get this), the aircraft was "hidden" until it "Turned on its radar" and/or "opened bay doors to release payload"

Well ... DUH!

But ma & pa kettle who don't understand that will think this is a serious problem with the aircraft and won't look further.

Either the author of said article really has no clue and should quit being an author if that is the case, or they are purposely misleading and trying some half-baked ginned up reason to say anything that will add fuel to their side.

Tony: The problem with the idea of paying artist $50K/Year without getting ANYTHING (other than a tax break) in return is that companies are already laying off people who actually do produce a product or provide a service for the company.

To suggest that a company should now hire someone who will only get them a tax break rather than KEEP/RE-hire those who were doing some actual work for the company seems to fly in the face of logic.

SOME of those being laid off have families to support & bills to pay.

Very good post. If you go to Matt Guerrieri's (the music critic for the Boston Globe) website (( http://sohothedog.blogspot.com/2009/02/they-shop-around-follow-you-without.html )) he makes some similarly convincing arguments, with a goodly dose of wit as well.

Thanks, to commenter Robert Bonotto. And I heartily concur with your opinion of Matt Guerrieri's website post-- http://sohothedog.blogspot.com/2009/02/they-shop-around-follow-you-without.html --and its recommendation to "get in their face."

What they should probably do is hire a bunch of artists to paint up the F-22s


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