When I was in college my student ID granted me free admission to the Detroit Institute of Arts.
Afternoons, when I had a bit of free time, I would walk over from my college, up the stairs, past Rodin’s The Thinker, through the heavy art deco doors, past the suits of armor from Europe’s Renaissance, under Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith and Maidservent With the Head of Holofernes, through the Rivera court with its familiar murals honoring the auto tradesmen who made the city great, and round the corner to the gallery where the Greek and Roman Classical Art was housed during the museum’s renovations. There, in the middle of the room, was Torso of Apollo, Roman copy of a Greek original, probably from the school of Praxiteles. I can’t tell you how many times I have drawn that torso. There was this bench, just behind it. And what a behind, my friends, what a behind. The museum was were I went to surround myself with the talent of ages and try and absorb a little for myself.
Now, the museum may have to close if a new millage isn’t passed, millage that would grant free admission to all residents of the counties taxed, and the amount taxed per household was likened by one county executive to being the price of “a bad day at Starbucks.” Yet there are people honestly arguing against it because they either don’t understand that a publicly owned museum might need public funding (which it is getting none of right now), or they honestly cannot see the value in having the second largest municipally owned art museum in the nation open and readily accessible to the public who own it.
But this seems to be the direction a lot of budget discussions all over America are headed in. Everyone is looking to cut spending and the arts seem to be a favorite for the chopping block. Romney wants to defund PBS and NPR if he is elected, and the House GOP has just created a new budget bill that would do the same (bonuses: it also would take out Americorps and Planned Parenthood). But after all, we need to save money, and budget cuts need to be made. The arts are a luxury item and we simply need to quit paying for them until we can afford them again, right?
No. Not right. Not right at all. This isn’t the cable bill, where you can turn it off, and when you are ready, turn it back on again. You quit funding the arts now and they will be gone when you want them back. They will move on to better, more welcoming environments, and they will take their friends, small business, young workers, and good society, with them. And the arts, despite first appearances, are not a luxury. Art is a massive part of how we communicate. Its presence in a society makes the society more desirable. There is a reason we surround ourselves with it, day and night. Art says something to us about who we are, as individuals, as cities, as counties, as nations. We really don’t want to be the country with nothing creative to say.
Let private funding handle it, then. The arts should be able to turn a profit if they are so valuable.
No, that will not work either. Private funding does handle most of art. And lo and behold, most art serves those with the money to fund it. We have a wealth of art for the old white man. And that is where public funding has to step in–to give voice to those with something to say that doesn’t follow the narrative of the man with all the money, to give audience to those who would otherwise be too disenfranchised to reach for it. The money that NPR and PBS get from the federal government mostly goes to the poor and rural stations that can’t get endowments from wealthy patrons. We need publicly funded art to allow us to speak and listen across class lines.
I could give numbers. Tell you about how small businesses benefit from a strong arts presence in a community or of tourism dollars, or speak to you about return on investment. I could point out how little we spend on the arts (and it really is little), and how cutting that funding wouldn’t give us significant extra to work with. Tell all about how this really is not at all financially irresponsible and a brilliant investment of taxpayer money. It isn’t the point I am trying to make, though.
We need to support the creative voice of our society because it makes us stronger. It breaks down walls. It advances education. It inspires us to be proud of where we are from. We need to do it as a group, as a people, to make sure that the arts are accountable. That the arts truly tell the story of all the people they speak for. We, each and every one of us, should be invested in what the arts are saying, because they will remember us to the future. Let’s be remembered well.