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Young: Arts funding is worth saving

Photo Credit: Jack Sherman Illustration/

Webster Young, former artistic director of the Long Island Opera, is a classical composer and was a twice invited to be a candidate for director of the National Endowment for the Arts in the President George W. Bush years.

The National Endowment for the Arts is one of the first programs being mentioned by some lawmakers for elimination - or at least deep cuts - in the effort to cut federal deficit spending. It's an early idea being floated by a number of pundits and politicians, and it gains an ear from the public because it comes during a time of economic hardship - a time when the arts might seem superfluous to some.

The NEA's budget of $167.5 million is already small, especially when compared with the budgets of other federal programs, like Housing and Urban Development's $38.5 billion in 2009, or the Department of Education's $58 billion last year. The NEA's entire budget, which funds dozens of programs in all of the arts - like helping cities plan arts districts, or theaters all over the country develop productions of newly written plays - is comparable with what the U.S. military spends just for its music: military bands in each of the services, choirs and the band that plays "Hail to the Chief" for the president.

In fact, the NEA receives only four times more federal funding than a single theater's arts program - the Kennedy Center, which is well-attended by our senators in Washington. The endowment is a drop in the bucket of national spending, and its elimination will have harmful consequences.

Rocco Landesman, director of the NEA, has been making the case for the economic and social importance of both artists and the arts, pointing out correctly that "arts jobs are real jobs, with real economic impact." As he has said in interviews, "Bring artists to the center of town, and that town changes. Creative people from other sectors are attracted; businesses follow." New Yorkers easily understand his meaning: They have only to think of Lincoln Center and its transformation of the upper end of Hell's Kitchen.

What makes the arts, and especially the fine arts, an easy target for cuts is the common idea that they aren't really a necessity of life. America, as a young country in comparison to the European countries that gave birth to many of our art forms, has always been too prone to set aside the arts. In the debate on Britain's recent budget cutting, discussion of arts funding came next to last, along with education. In the United States, we are discussing complete elimination of arts support at the beginning.

As a result of this easy dismissal, most American artists have always been second-class citizens. Many disciplines in the arts here - composing, writing, painting, poetry, architecture - provide no safety net for the artists involved. Those pursuing the fine arts at great personal sacrifice often go without health insurance, unemployment insurance and retirement funds. The NEA is the only government program that has acted, at least indirectly, to combat this.

What's more, neither the talent nor the institutions involved in the fine arts can be rebuilt easily once cut. European arts policy-makers generally understand this. If you defund arts in one decade, refunding them in the next won't necessarily be enough to build them back up.

When I took leadership of the Long Island Opera, New York State and Nassau County had cut back arts funding. During a decade of strong economic growth, from 1994 to 2004, that funding was not restored. Long Island lost the prestigious National Grand Opera, which had regular seasons at the Tilles Center. The Long Island Opera, the older company, survived, but it lost its home at the same time and subsequently hasn't grown enough to fill the lost company's shoes.

Many fine arts fields require a decade or more of study from the artists involved. Then those artists have to be discovered, a process that may take years. The artist's work must be exposed to the public by a theater, a museum or an orchestra - institutions that may take years to develop funding. Once ground is lost in these areas, the impact may last a generation or more.

But the debate needs to get away from exclusively practical arguments. When anyone wants to defend the arts in United States, the reasons are always utilitarian. Defenders have to prove that the arts do something practical and economically useful. Intangible things, such as artistic and spiritual values, aren't discussed. More philosophical, spiritual and moral arguments for supporting the arts ought to be made.

Ever since the 1980s, with the advent of political correctness and its attempts to apply egalitarian values to the arts, major questions about government's role in the arts have been raised but left unanswered. Questions like "What is good and bad art?" and "What's the difference between fine art, folk art and crafts?" - which raise issues of cultural traditions receiving equal treatment - were too difficult to answer. Today, support for the arts is couched in terms that avoid questions of quality and value. The NEA is as likely to support basket-weaving as it is to fund symphony orchestras. To some people who know how to value the fine arts, this serves as a motivation to pull the plug and start over.

To save the NEA - or at least the part of it that helps the fine arts - it may be necessary to talk about the intangibles of art once again, to give voice to the philosophical and spiritual arguments that affirm the value of the arts in our lives, even though times are tough.

Perhaps the most important intangible of art is illustrated by the role that performing arts played during World War II, a time that was certainly more desperate than today's Great Recession. Some of Hollywood's most gifted performers brought live performances to the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific. Those performing arts certainly saved the morale - and possibly the sanity - of some soldiers. If the arts are a most important relief, and thus a necessity for troops on the battlefield, they can also have great value in a recession, in all walks of life. They are important for morale.

The arts - especially the fine arts - embody the things that are beyond the mere struggle for physical being. But they go far beyond just boosting morale. The fine arts provide a vision of the reasons and possibilities for living. In hard times, that vision is more valuable than ever.

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