Thursday, February 25, 2010

The REAL Case for the Arts in VA

Posted by Bruce Miller
At least 150 Virginia arts supporters lined the halls of the Virginia Capitol today. It felt like more, but that's how many stickers saying "Save the Arts" were distributed. However many of us there were, we packed the place, and certainly made a strong statement in favor of continuing state funding for the Virginia Commission for the Arts.

Everywhere we went, smart and well-intentioned individuals asked something like, "Why should the state support the arts when we can't do all that we should be doing for disabled children, for education, for health care for the poor?"

If there were a true choice between these very worthy causes and the minimal financial support required to save the Virginia Commission for the Arts, I too would pick disabled kids, education and health care. The arts will never and should never win the argument that we are "more important" than these very worthy efforts. The case for disabled children, education and health care for the poor has already been argued and won in the hearts and minds of virtually everyone I know. Especially artists.

But in the real world, there is no such choice. Pretending that such a choice exists is an ideological exercise, lacking any foundation in real world economics.

The one choice is this: should Virginia continue to fund the Virginia Commission for the Arts, cutting it proportionally with other agencies, services and efforts, or should the Old Dominion become the first state in the nation to turn its back on its own nonprofit arts industry.

That is the choice. And as we debate the pros and cons, the only truly germane question, given current budget realities, is this: will spending $4.4 million to maintain the Virginia Commission for the Arts result in a net loss for the state budget or a net gain. If we all agree that we want more money to go to the aforementioned worthy causes (and who doesn't), the question is not whether or not the state should fund the arts, the question is whether such funding will be a sound investment resulting in more revenue to devote to all the things the state is honor-bound to fund.

The Virginia economy, like any large economy, is very inter-connected and complex. An economic impact study conducted in 2000 documents that the nonprofit arts generated $1.1 billion per year in Virginia a decade ago. Wise leaders recognize that the arts are like roads, libraries and state parks. They are among the quality of life components that attract businesses to a community, that attract top students and faculty to universities, that bring out-of-state money into local and state cash registers.

Gone are the days when a thriving American city or town (or state) can be "art free" and still expect to attract jobs. The vast majority of major employers don't move into cities until they determine that a thriving arts and cultural community pre-exists. They require a robust arts community not only because they want their employees to have something fun to do on Friday night, but also because virtually all business studies indicate that the most educated work forces, the most creative work forces, the work forces most adept at the skills that 21st Century companies need to compete come from communities that are rich in the arts.

Don't believe me? Check out Richard Florida's (PhD, Columbia University) several best-selling business texts: The Rise of the Creative Class, Cities and the Creative Class, and The Flight of the Creative Class. Follow that with a perusal of Daniel Pink's immensely popular A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future.

As for small businesses ... the Virginia economy is based on small businesses. Every legislator says so, especially those who favor eliminating the Virginia Commission for the Arts. The ironic thing is that arts organizations ARE small businesses, employing over 20,000 professionals in Virginia each year.

Eliminating the Virginia Commission for the Arts (as has been proposed by the House) will not save money, it will cost money. Lots of money. If you truly want to get more money for your favorite worthy cause--and we all agree that education, health care etc are worthy causes--then do NOT destroy the infrastructure that enables and sustains 20,000 jobs and offers a $250 return for every $1 of investment.

Virginia's arts organizations have already accepted cuts exceeding 30%. We haven't whined. We haven't cried "Wolf!" We understand that we need to tighten our belts and sacrifice just like everyone else.

All we ask now is for the Virginia legislature in its entirety to go with the budget recommendations of Gov Kaine, Gov McDonnell and the Virginia Senate. Only the House budget recommends eliminating the Virginia Commission for the Arts.

All we ask is that the legislature in its entirety think big picture. Save the Virginia Commission for the Arts, and allow our nonprofit industry to continue to provide tens of thousands of real jobs, lure hundreds of thousands or more jobs into Virginia, support education, and increase tourism.

We know the job of balancing the budget is extremely hard. But please, examine the concrete evidence. Think long term and big picture. The voters of Virginia deserve no less.

--Bruce Miller

PS For those who are twittering and facebook messaging that the story is over and the VCA is gone, be patient. The battle will not be fought, won or lost until March 5, and we won't know the result until a few days after. March 5 is when conferees from the House and the Senate begin meeting to duke it out, finding a common ground between their two versions of the budget. The Senate budget proposes the same 16% cut offered by Gov Kaine. The House budget (which passed today along party lines) proposes a 50% cut in year one and elimination in year two. Now is the time to work even harder to convince House conferees to consider the wisdom of maintaining the VCA.


Natalie Powers said...

Bruce, an excellent, cogent, and winning argument that demolishes, in the most repsectful way, the false dichotomy argument constructed by those who insist that funding the arts means defunding schools/the disabled/the sick. A state or federal budget is not a household budget, and your argument does so much to explain that.

Bobby Thalhimer said...

Bruce, congratulations on your leadership and your well stated position. Unquestionably the arts add value to our communities throughout Virginia, and traditionally the arts have been funded through a variety of means -- generated revenues, private support and public support. Deleting public support would have a serious negative impact on the arts.

I fear the outcome of the present political process because Virginia, like other states, is in a crisis environment. At the same time, politics are more polarized than I can ever remember. Finding means of increasing revenues has been taken off the table for ideological reasons. So, we must face our crisis solely from the expense side of the equation, which means that many bad decisions are likely to be made. Eliminating funding for the arts would be one of them.

I am personally a fiscal conservative, and I believe that low taxes are good for the economy. However, I am also a realist. In a crisis it is a mistake to take anything off the table. There may be creative ways to raise some revenues without pushing the economy over the cliff.

I hope our politicians wake up to the fact that whichever party they represent, the most important constituency they have is the people. We depend on them to negotiate and to find the optimum solutions to problems. The optimum solution will never be found without the ability to use ALL options.

I agree that cutting funding for the arts, like funding for other priorities, is likely necessary in today's economic environment. I also agree that eliminating funding for the arts would be a travesty.

Bobby Thalhimer