The arts aren’t a special interest. They’re a national interest.
© Getty

Last week, we learned that the White House’s proposed budget would zero out funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, effectively shuttering these vital national treasures. I do not mean to give short shrift to the other budget reductions across the government that would have profound negative effects on millions of families and individuals in the U.S. But I want to focus here on what it means for this country to axe support for the arts.

In doing so, the administration has abrogated an enduring American principle that these organizations have supported for more than a half century: Creative expression is a public good.

ADVERTISEMENT

This new proposal is hardly the first to discount and disregard the power of the arts. In school and municipal budgets, arts are usually the first thing cut when the books must be balanced.  For decades, some even have contended that investments in the arts are a waste of taxpayer dollars.  Philanthropies like the Ford Foundation should foot the bill, they say.  Support artists through Kickstarter, they suggest.

 

These arguments are a disservice to the American people.

The fact is, America’s economy depends on the arts.  As of 2014, the United States Bureau of Economic Analysis estimates, our nation’s creative sector contributes nearly $730 billion to our GDP—a larger share than 44 states.  It supports 4.8 million jobs, from schools to galleries, theaters, and beyond.  And it supplies an enormous trade surplus that continues to grow year after year; America’s culture remains among our proudest exports.

Moreover, the arts catalyze all of this benefit with relatively small public and philanthropic investment.  The arts achieve an extraordinary, outsized bang for the buck.  Indeed, last year, the NEA’s budget amounted to roughly .004 percent of the federal budget.

Nevertheless, these modest investments generate cascading impact. They help wounded veterans at Walter Reed to process their experiences and manage their rehabilitation.  They contribute to the dynamism and creative vitality of places across the country — cities like Anchorage, Birmingham, and Des Moines and towns like Maize, Kansas, and Reedsburg, Wisconsin, and Round Top, Texas. The NEA alone supports creative and enterprising people in every Congressional district.  It gives state arts agencies the means to invest in local communities.

Of course, there is something at stake here much greater than the economic impact of public support for the arts.  In a time of discordant political discourse — of competing, conflicting ideas of our shared future — the arts open our hearts and our minds, build empathy among us, and reconnect us with the human experience we all share. They are no special interest; they are a national interest that strengthens who we are.

As Americans, our free-wheeling creativity and fearless inventiveness have always been our calling card, features of our national enterprise, which distinguish us on the world stage. Investing in this well of American creativity and expression, as generations of elected representatives have chosen to do over the last five decades, sends a clear and unmistakable signal: We know the unique strength of our nation resides in our creative spirit, and we do not intend to allow that resource to wither or weaken. It is the core of who we are.

My own story makes this clear.  As a child in rural Liberty County, Texas, I poured over the glossy pages of art magazines that my grandmother, a domestic, brought me from the homes of the wealthy families for whom she worked.  Page after page, hour after hour, my mind visited worlds from which I otherwise would have been excluded.

But that was just sheer chance. The NEA takes experiences like mine and makes them available to everyone.

As a college student in Austin, I saw the Dance Theater of Harlem — a performance underwritten by the NEA.  The company’s dynamic expression introduced me to the notion that people like me could pursue dreams and destinies far beyond what was expected of a poor black kid from a single-parent home.

My American dream was made more possible because of my exposure to American arts, and I know I am not alone. During this period of challenge and change, we owe it to ourselves not to retreat from our national commitment to our unique cultural inheritance, but to renew it for an America in transition, and in need of every ounce of our creative energy. 

Last Monday at the Kennedy Center in Washington, thousands of Americans celebrated the legacy of Nancy Hanks, our nation’s second chairperson of the National Endowment for the Arts, under whose stewardship the institution’s budget multiplied more than tenfold.

Nancy was a proud Republican, appointed by President Richard Nixon, and reappointed by President Gerald Ford.  And yet, she affirmed — in her words and through her work — that public investment in creative expression is not a partisan issue, but rather an American imperative.

Nancy’s lifetime of service embodied and advanced the conviction that the arts and democracy are inexorably intertwined.  An assault on the arts, therefore, is an assault on our democracy itself.  Together, we must fight for both.

Darren Walker is President of the Ford Foundation.


The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.