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*Live on the Web: Forum on how to measure artists' economic impact

November 19, 2009 |  5:45 am

NEAlogo In the arts, composers, writers, painters, sculptors and performers grab all the glory, but they also serve who sit and wonk.

And we, the people, are invited to watch 'em in action Friday as the National Endowment for the Arts presents a live webcast of its daylong Cultural Workforce Forum. From 6 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Pacific Standard Time, an assortment of academics, federal bureaucrats, and staffers from private think tanks and research organizations will assemble in Washington, and in cyberspace at www.nea.gov. They'll attempt to elucidate, ponder and talk about how to broaden and improve the statistical evidence supporting the notion that what those composers, writers, painters, et al do is not just fluff and filigree, but part of the dollars-and-cents fiber of the country.

Panel topics include "What We Know About Artists and How We Know It," featuring an economics professor from Northeastern University, an executive from the AFL-CIO, and arts researchers from the NEA and Columbia University; "Putting the Research to Work";  and "Widening the Lens to Capture Other Cultural Workers."

Arts organizations fishing for funding have tried to play the economic-engine card for years, amassing enough studies and surveys on arts spending and its multiplier effects to fill a bookcase.

But there's at least one recent, specific reason for arts advocates to be seeking better data to support their case:


Nine months ago, by a vote of 73-24, the U.S. Senate specifically placed museums, theaters and art centers on a blacklist of "wasteful and non-stimulative" enterprises excluded from funding under the national emergency economic stimulus bill then being debated. Ultimately, that amendment got amended, and the NEA received $50 million under the stimulus bill to distribute to nonprofit arts organizations -- museums, theaters and art centers included. But it spoke volumes about the political clout of the arts that so many senators with no grudge against arts funding felt free to throw museums and theaters under the proverbial bus in casting that preliminary vote. Would so many have dared sign on to language excluding, say, the hiring of gym teachers or the construction of high school sports facilities?

Since then, NEA chairman Rocco Landesman (pictured) has coined "Art Works" as the agency's new slogan, partly to highlight that artists are workers in the economic sense. Sunil Iyengar, the NEA's research director and organizer of the Cultural Workforce Forum, says the Senate vote's dismissal of the arts illustrated the need to hone ways to gather more complete and useful data about artists as economic creatures.

"Some of the rancor and debates earlier this year revealed that people don't realize artists are workers. These are valuable creative, social and economic assets in your community, and we need to find ways to inventory and take stock of them, just as any profession that contributes to the economy should be accounted for and tracked."

Iyengar chuckled a bit when asked whether one outcome might be marshaling better data to help persuade Congress that the NEA could use a funding boost. While its budget has been rising in recent years, the $167.5 million allocation for 2010 barely qualifies as an asteroid, never mind even a minor planet, in the cosmos of federal spending, and the annual arts grants that make up most of the NEA's spending have a fraction of the buying power they did decades ago.

"We hope this will yield exciting policy options," Iyengar said, whether the economic arguments for the arts are made to legislators, governors and mayors, or to private funders. 

For those not able to drop everything to take in the live proceedings on Friday, the forum will be archived next week on the NEA's website.

By the way, it appears that no GNP-enhancing artistic labor will be lost because of the forum, since no artists are among the 20 participants listed on the NEA's press release. "My job was to corral people who could provide some of the technical insight needed," Iyengar said, adding that at least one participant, Carrie Sandahl, a University of Illinois at Chicago professor who's an expert on and advocate for disabled artists, has an extensive background as a theater artist.

-- Mike Boehm

*Correction: An earlier version of this story said that the panel would feature an economics professor from Northwestern University. The professor is from Northeastern University.


Artists and arts advocates go on the offensive

Photos: NEA logo / NEA; Rocco Landesman / Michael Eastman

Comments () | Archives (1)

One of the hardest ways to discuss economic impact is one of the most important, but it has the disadvantage of being unattractive. It involves seeing arts funding as an investment, and understanding that the bulk of the return on the investment is in what is produced, by other people, from the environment that artists create. So, if you assume a case where artists are not present and do not generate these environments, then you assume we will not get the follow-on production -- and instead, that production will occur somewhere else or not at all. Since we can't seem to respect this phenomenon even in glaring cases such as education, where teachers are on the critical path to the future availability of competent employees yet we don't invest in teachers (!!), it is unlikely that we will suddenly find triumphant new statistical reasoning for supporting the arts. The best reasoning is not new at all; rather, it is just not wanted by the short-term thinkers whose controls of the domestic economy are about keeping their own jobs. In the more than 16 years since I worked for the NEA, this has not changed one little bit.


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