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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

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