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David A. Smith: Arts 'bailout' fixes only part of the problem

By David A. Smith
February 2, 2009

The House of Representatives last week passed an economic stimulus package of almost $820 billion that included $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts. Backers of this bundle point out quite correctly that when the economy hits the skids, the arts suffer.

Endowments have collapsed, donations have dried up, and symphonies and theater companies are having to cancel performances if not entire seasons. And individuals are affected: upwards of two million people make their living in the arts.
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There is talk of a “bailout” for the arts, just like for banks, automobile companies and who knows what else. But do the arts rank with these other institutions on the scale of importance?

The answer is yes. The arts are of vital importance, especially in a democracy. Great art draws us outside of ourselves and ultimately makes us less self-centered. The Arts Endowment published a study last year that showed, among other things, people who make the arts a regular part of their lives also vote and volunteer more regularly.

The real question is how best to help our ailing arts institutions in this economy. Monetary help now - sometimes just to pay wages and keep the stage lights on - is urgent because the problems are so pressing.

But one of the pitfalls is the possibility of losing sight of long-term problems in the hunt for short-term fixes. The arts need to make it through the down time, yes, but they also need a surer footing for the future when talk of bailouts and a government with its wallet wide open will hopefully be in the past.

What goes to the heart of the matter is not as much dollars as it is education. That’s the real solution, but the path here is even rockier than making it through an economic downturn. For a utilitarian people, conditioned to be interested mainly in skills, efficiency and quantifiable results, it’s hard to understand art as a component of education equal to math, science, and history. Yet to see it as secondary sends the message to young people that the arts are extraneous to what constitutes a good life.

The institutions of art that are struggling are indeed worth saving, but the only way to save them in the long term is to work to ensure that they have broader audiences in the future than they have today. That starts with children, and fixing this has to happen in schools. It therefore brings with it a big local responsibility.

There is nothing in today’s culture that encourages young people to participate in anything more than the most ephemeral expressions of art. The idea of great art is downplayed or ignored, and people grow up consequently seeing less civic importance in theaters, symphonies and museums.

Like an iceberg, only a little bit of what art brings to life sits on the visible surface so it’s regularly discounted as nonessential. But most of it works down deep within us, over time, pulling us to a world that’s bigger than ourselves, combating that awful contemporary tendency to regard ourselves as the center of the universe.

So it’s proper to think that the arts are worthy of financial help in the midst of a serious economic downturn. More crucial, however, is that we take steps through our education system to ensure that future generations appreciate the centrality of the arts to life.

David A. Smith is a senior lecturer in American history at Baylor University and author of “Money for Art: The Tangled Web of Art and Politics in American Democracy” (Ivan R. Dee, 2008). His e-mail address is .

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