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A job-killing plan for arts and culture? [Updated]

January 24, 2011 | 11:13 am

Buro_of_labor_stats If you gave me a buck, and next year I returned $18.75 to you, would you think that was a good deal?

I would. With savings accounts, money markets and even stocks yielding just a few percentage points on investments these days, a return in excess of 1800% is pretty staggering.

Yet, that's what happens with federal support for arts and culture. It pays for itself 18 times over.

Federal support includes partial matches to state arts agencies, underwriting the National Gallery of Art and the Kennedy Center in Washington, the nationwide programs of the endowments for the arts and humanities and much more. My colleague Mike Boehm reports that, all together, federal arts and culture spending currently totals about $1.6 billion a year, not counting construction budgets.

Meanwhile, revenues to federal, state and local coffers related to that spending totals $30 billion annually -- more than 18 times the outlay. The income derives from taxes paid by the 5.7 million workers in the nation's culture industry, many of whose jobs are sustained by federal support.

Pretty good deal -- especially when stacked up against agribusiness subsidies, military expenditures and other corporate financing from Washington.

Nonetheless, congressional Republicans are once again proposing job-killing cuts to the federal arts budget. They aim to slash it, even zeroing out tiny agencies such as the NEA and NEH, as a report last week from the Republican Study Committee proposed. In these scary, economically strapped times, what passes for an argument is their claim that "we can't afford it." But the numbers show the argument is just fear-mongering bunk.

Does all that revenue come directly from federal arts spending? No. Would slashing that spending significantly damage the revenue? Yes. The impact is direct and indirect.

Not only can we afford it, we need it -- for the jobs and the return on the investment that federal arts and culture funding provide. Normally, economic indicators are the last reason to tout the benefits of a vigorous U.S. cultural sector. But with official unemployment figures stuck above 12% in California and over 9% nationally, plus deficits everywhere you look, these are anything but normal times.

If the Republican Study Committee's economic rationale is without merit, it must have another agenda for federal arts and culture cuts. So far, no one in the House GOP has articulated what that reason is.

Recovery in the battered American economy is slow and precarious. Why look an arts gift-horse in the mouth?

[For the record: An earlier version of this post incorrectly said the return was 18%. The correct figure is 1800%.]


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 --Christopher Knight


Photo: U.S. unemployment rate; Credit: Bureau of Labor Statistics


Comments () | Archives (37)

I cannot understand why Republicans believe that these cuts are good? We have more people in America and they want to run like those people don't exist. I read the Republicans want to bring spending down to 5 years ago when more people are out of work.

My sister's husband in the navy. Recently she was complaining about the high amounts they have to pay. I told her I pay $500 a month for insurance on my family and I work at a bank. My sister started screaming that was outrageous. When I asked her she replied they pay about $10 a month total. I was speechless.

Gimmee Gimmee. I told her to bite the bullet and sell one of her 3 vehicles, 4 apartment buildings, summer home, or her new motorcycle. Stop the plane trips to visit hubby if she cannot afford and live normal. For god sakes people what have we come too!

Bad math: 18 times over is not 18%.

Which is it 18% ROI or 1800%? I'm betting its 18% logically. While I agree with the author's sentiment their failure to grasp middle school math casts serious doubts on the rest of the analysis.

Well done Christopher! Its great to see cultural policy issues covered in the Times. We need to remain vigilant. All levels of government funding for the arts are being challenged. Elected officials need to hear from their constituents that the arts = jobs.

Be a part of the collective voice advocating for arts, culture and arts education in your area.


"18 times over" is 1800%, not 18%

Thank you Chris. Republican hypocrisy is truly staggering. They have the nerve to label Obama's health care reform a "job killer," which amounts to a psychedelic distortion of facts, and then they turn around and try to kill thousands if not millions of jobs in the arts, purely out of their philistine fear of anything creative. It makes me gag.

The arts has been a scapegoat of the Right for too long. Articles such as this one help to educate people about the value of the arts as an economic driver. $18.75 generated for each $1 invested is actually an 1800% return.

Wonderful. Thank you soooo much for this thoughtful, well-written and persuasive piece.

By this author’s analysis, if the federal government pumped an additional $30 billion into the military or the Department of Education (for example), then the return on that investment (ROI) could be calculated as the gross income tax receipts collected from every employee of the military or every employee of every school funded by the Department of Education! What a ridiculous analysis! I,too, agree with the sentiment, but we have to start telling the truth about economic impact.

The rate of return isn't 18%. Please, take the time to learn some basic math.

Rate of return on investment = [(Final amount - initial amount)/initial amount] and multiply that by 100 to get a percentage. Your example would yield a return of 1,775% -- dramatically different and more convincing for your argument.

The problem is that we're spending our children's children's money to finance this kind of spending. Obviously there is a short-term benefit to arts spending. Is it worth the long term cost? If you work in the arts, obviously your answer will be yes. If you are an ordinary taxpayer, who because of the added federal debt will be faced with either increased taxes or increased inflation (as this debt is monetized), you'll probably render a different opinion.

Do Republicans care about jobs? I don't know. In the past two years, Obama and his pet Federal Reserve chairman and Mr. Reid and Ms. Pelosi have borrowed and printed $4-6 trillion to stimulate the economy through these kinds of "investments." At the end of 2010 there were 3.8 million fewer total jobs than when Obama took office. NOW, after two years, Obama claims jobs will be the number one priority. It is clear he does not know how to spur job creation except by running us deeper into debt. Maybe it is time to try a different strategy, though in all honesty, until the massive load of debt in the public, business, and personal sector is paid down somewhat (or written off), we cannot expect a lasting or robust economic recovery. That takes time, and we must trim budgets accordingly.

Frankly, I don't want to finance jobs in the arts. And I especially don't want to do it by borrowing money that several generations to come will have to pay interest on.

By the way, as Ori Keita pointed out, the accounting analysis used to justify this expense is quite bogus. This argument is a non-starter from sentence one.

In the arts, it is nearly impossible to figure out the actual financial benefit, as that is not the point anyway. To claim it is is nonsense. Fed money just adds to local and state outlays, tax breaks, monies from tax write off foundations and donations. All to appease the rich while the middle and working classes get nada. Most arts jobs pay little and so pay little in taxes. They are to entertain the wealthy on their own tax writeoffs. To build Mausolems and ego masses and places to party for the self styled "elite". Thees figures dont jibe, and are mixed of entertainment and arts numbers to slant to a predetermined conclusion.

Start creating for those below the Wilshire line, for All Angelenos, and maybe the pressure to cut funding will lessen. 90% of the country sees none of this, some volunteer local play companies an such, but they are local with no Fed funding. These monies are focuses in tiny areas for a small group, and you wonder why there is a backlash. there are reasons for everything, you cant write this off like your gifts to get your kids in art schools. Where many of the jobs are, teaching hords of more unneeded "talent".

Time to become relevant, and jsut maybe, the attitude will swing.

try some creative art artsys, you just might like it.

art collegia delenda est


It pays for itself. That means you're earning money for your children's children, not spending it.

Thank you for the great post, Christopher! In my twenty years of public sector arts service, what I have learned is that when an elected official says that there is no money, or "we can't afford it" they are making a statement of value. As a political insider recently said, "There is always money." The arts as an industry have made tremendous headway in making the case for both the inherent and economic value of the arts over the last decade. It is distressing but not surprising to see the regression of arts again being isolated as a target for funding reduction during a federal election cycle. A high return on investment is an easy bipartisan position to support but we have a new class of representatives to educate. It is critical to retain the context of federal funding and not let arts funding become isolated as a target for reduction. Compare $1.6 billion in annual federal arts and culture funding with $3.47 billion spent on lobbyists in 2009. We need to continue to make the case to elected officials why art is important to each of us. Far more people enjoy and participate in the arts in all sectors of American life than advocate for the critical need for arts funding.

Funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities have played an important role for decades to seed fund cultural activities that all Angelinos benefit from, and help drive our economic engine. Their loss would negatively impact our continued economic growth.

Thank you for writing this! There is a lot of great research out there about the benefits of the arts, but these findings don't seem to make headlines very often.

My take is that politicians talk about issues and make promises that give some kind of instant gratification. This is good for their political careers and is easy for the masses of constituents to digest. The arts are an easy target in an environment of necessary budget cuts and to an audience (Republican) that tends to favor small government.

The politicians (even those that want to support the arts) are not going to spend money now on something that many Americans see as a luxury. We have to keep presenting the pro-arts information, like this article, until it starts to stick. The alternative is unthinkable.

Thank you Christopher for writing this article. From the comments, there is a range of opinions. It comes down to values, yes. And, an understanding that federal funding through the National Endowments seed cultural experiences in communities throughout the nation. Federal funding democratizes access. If you don't like the statistics which support the idea that the public investment in the arts spurs job creation, or, you don't 'get' that robust arts, cultural, creative and imaginative education and life experiences contribute to healthy communities and enhance our position in the world – I am not sure how to convince the readers. But, I can find out where those who represent me stand before I vote and I can vote for people who do get it.

I am all for Federal efforts to desseminate arts throughout the country, PBS and such. Travelling shows, in all fields, science, history and arts especially.
Funding to high school level art programs would be best, art schools that ghettoized the arts, hell no. We got far more artistes than any country needs, plus real creative art comes from experience of life. And that cannot be done in the vacuum of the inbred and sheltered effete artworld.

Art must be of US, but that has not been the case for decades. It has been for the few. What you are experiencing is the backlash agaisnt the selfishness of the artscene. Art is NOT self espression, the average intelligent person knows this. It is expressIVE of life, and seeks the essence of who WE are, never I.

Make art that seeks to bind us, create the mythlogies of humanity once more, that which inspires to do for one another, not dictate what we must do. Art is never political. even Goya and Picasso's Guernica have no identified enemy, it is what lurks with us all. This has been ignored for fifty years. It is time to get back to fundamentals of what Creative Art truly is, its purpose withing our joined human culture. And these pressures will end. Do your job artworld, you are no better or worse than anyone else. but you do have work to do. Get to it.

Save the spiritual and human binding Watts Towers, tear down the selfish and splintering Ivories.

That means it is time to stand for arts... and that also includes the creative industry that makes this world turn. Advertising gurus, graphic designers, fashion folks, movie makers, actors, chefs (culinary arts), engineer designers (what would cool cars and cup holders be without them), writers of all sorts (books, screen plays, ad jingles, songs), music, video games, pottery, interior design, furniture, web design, computer and digital folks (creative and innovative), product design, and the list could on and on and on... Creativity and innovation makes the world go-round... and the arts foster and cultivate these tax paying jobs and helped the elected officials, by the way, get to office in promoting them in their campaigns... Stand up for your job and creativity as well as for the fine arts. The arts cultivate the talented work force which is so integrated into our everyday lives.

Nonsense, the arts are but one facet of human culture. We have a role to do, no better nor worse than any other. And we have failed. If we hadnt, this wouldnt be happening. Karma is a beeatch aint it?

Stop being self absorbed and ignorantly arrogant. Hubris was the ultimate sin to the Hellenes, perhaps we should learn a little about humility, responsibility, sacrifice, and hard real work.

art collegia delenda est
Arrogant and isolated effette fine art colleges must be destroyed

Can someone please back up the 1800% interest claim...you know, with real quantitative analysis.

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