The 2019 Arts Advocacy Day, hosted by Americans for the Arts brought together more than 600 activists on Capitol Hill to do one thing: tell congress to save the National Endowment for the Arts.
Arts Advocacy Day was a remarkable experience that provided a first-hand look into how the arts can be used to inform and shape policy. More than 600 artists, activists, arts managers, students, and educators came together from across the country to lend their voices in what has become one of the largest arts advocacy day in the history of Americans for the Arts. The two-day event packed the rooms of the Grand Hyatt Hotel - with many of the breakout sessions and panel discussions having standing room only.
For the past two years, the President’s ‘slim budget’ cut funding for dozens of public programs and independent federal agencies including the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (PBS), the National Endowment for Humanities (NEH), and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). This marks the first time any president has completely de-funded the NEA since the agency’s creation in 1965. Federal appropriations for the NEA in fiscal year 2018 was $155 million, just 0.004% of the federal budget and 47 cents per capita. Despite the meager amount in federal funding, the NEA has had a direct impact on the lives of nearly every American citizen since 1965. The NEA is responsible for programs like the Big Read, which offers grants to support community-wide reading and literacy initiatives. The NEA also funds programs like “Our Town”, the primary creative place making program that builds and invests in communities across the country. The NEA routinely invests in arts education, dance, design, folk & traditional arts, literature, museums, music, musical theatre, and opera, just to name a few. The NEA also directly funds state arts agencies who contribute additional funding dollars and tailor artistic programs to serve the needs of regional and local communities across the country. Rural communities tend to see far greater impact of NEA funded arts programs than their urban counterparts.
One of the striking things about Arts Advocacy Day was the amount of young people who were there taking part and lending their voice. Advocates included high school and undergraduate students concerned about their future careers, and young artists questioning the type of future they will come to inherit should the NEA cease to exist. Every person had a unique story to share about how the arts had a direct impact on their lives through education or engagement, and it’s no surprise.
The arts are often described as having both instrumental and intrinsic benefits. Instrumental benefits include economic impact, academic improvement, and measurable benefits to overall health and wellness. Instrumentally, the facts and figures are all there. Arts and culture production is a $730 billion industry, which represents 4.2% of the nation’s GDP. According to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, that’s higher than construction, transportation, tourism, and agriculture. The nonprofit arts industry generates $135 billion in annual economic activity which supports 4.1 million jobs and generates $22.3 billion in government revenue. Every $1 granted by the NEA leverages $9 from private and other public funds. That means the arts are an investment, not a luxury.
Data compiled by Americans for the Arts suggests the arts improve individual well-being, unify communities, improve academic performance, strengthen the economy, spark creativity and innovation, improve healthcare, and promote healing in the military. High school students with routine engagement in the arts score an average of 92 points higher on the SATs. Low income students with high levels of arts engagement are more likely to graduate, and 4 times more likely to be recognized for academic achievement. High arts engagement among disadvantaged students is directly related to finding a better job, earning degrees, and volunteering. These are facts. Not alternative facts - not exaggerated facts, just plain facts. The artist Pablo Picasso once said, “We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.” The truth is, the arts are essential and they are necessary.
These sentiments are merely echoing from many of the speakers who contributed their voice to Arts Advocacy Day. These words were reinforced by legendary Broadway actor, Brian Stokes Mitchell, who performed at the 32nd Annual Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy. The keynote speaker this year was the incomparable Rita Moreno who shared a deeply moving personal story about her journey as an immigrant and actor. Moreno is one of few living artists to achieve the EGOT status. EGOT stands for Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony award of which the notable Puerto Rican actor has been awarded each. Moreno was introduced by none other than Justice Sotomayer, a fellow Puerto Rican and longtime friend. Aside from being star struck, the message was clear, beyond the instrumental facts and figures, beyond economic and academic impact, and beyond sociopolitical benefits, the arts define what it means to be human. The arts change and transform lives. The arts build bridges instead of walls. The arts create meaning out of the mundane and allow us to share in the experiences of others.
The intrinsic value of the arts is immeasurable. Engagement in the arts develops personal satisfaction, self-efficacy, and empathy while routine exposure to arts and cultural production leads to greater levels of creativity, innovation, and imagination.
America is the birthplace of blues, jazz, rock ’n’ roll, R&B, and hip-hop. America is a pioneer of musical theatre with groundbreaking works that range from Show Boat to Ragtime to Hamilton. America nurtured some of the greatest playwrights the world has ever known from Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams to August Wilson and Lorraine Hansberry. America bore generations of literary geniuses from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Mark Twain to Langston Hughes. In the visual arts, America has continuously defined and defied genres with artists ranging from Georgia O’Keeffe to Andy Warhol to Shepard Fairey. Time and time again, America has led global innovation in film, music, theatre, dance, architecture, and visual media - begging us to ask the question - what exactly is it that makes America great?
In a time of such polarizing divisiveness, the arts become more important, not less. The arts are not a partisan issue, so funding for the arts shouldn’t be either. With this in mind, let’s tell congress to save the NEA, indefinitely.
Willie Caldwell is an incoming co-chair for GCAAE and a Visiting Assistant Professor of Arts Management and Entrepreneurship at Miami University of Ohio. He is an interdisciplinary arts leader, entrepreneur, and educator. For more information about Willie or his work, visit www.williefcaldwell.com