Art isn’t nice, it’s necessary for governing — states must invest more
© Getty Images

In his TED Talk explaining why mayors should rule the world, political theorist Benjamin Barber observes that “mayors are pragmatists and problem-solvers — they get things done.” Indeed, there is no liberal or conservative case for filling potholes. They need to be filled, and the best mayors know how to fill them efficiently. 

So it’s interesting that mayors, unlike many other elected officials, need no convincing that art is necessary for governing. In Boston, shortly after winning election as the city’s new mayor in 20 years, Mayor Martin Walsh created a new position in his cabinet for a commissioner of the arts with the same policy-making authority as his police commissioner and superintendent of schools.

ADVERTISEMENT

It’s what former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter did in 2008 after winning office on a campaign in which he promised to direct greater resources to the arts. Similar stories can be told about municipal investment in the arts in Chicago, Cleveland, Houston, Minneapolis-St. Paul, New York, Portland, Oregon, San Francisco, and Seattle.

 

That’s why the decision by 18 state legislatures in the last fiscal year to cut public investment in art, coupled with President Trump’s call to eliminate funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, is so potentially harmful to our communities.

Art succeeds at the local level by building more vibrant, equitable, and connected communities. It spurs economic activity and enhances education at the state level. There is even a place for art in global politics, where it can be a powerful tool in high stakes diplomacy

Consider the following examples:

During the Abu Dhabi Culture Summit held in April on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi and sponsored by Foreign Policy magazine, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright asserted that “cultural diplomacy is not a secondary tool.” The role of music in creating connection between the U.S. and Russia during the Cold War is well known. Albright’s experiences, particularly with Václav Havel, the first President of the Czech Republic who was a jazz aficionado, convinced her to formalize the use of art in what she called the “diplomatic toolbox.”

Nationally, the NEA employs art to strengthen vulnerable communities around the country. In a remarkable piece documenting how NEA funds have been distributed in Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceMcConnell says he'd back Trump as 2024 GOP nominee Poll: Democrats more likely than Republicans to view their party favorably The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by The AIDS Institute - Ahead: One-shot vax, easing restrictions, fiscal help MORE’s home state of Indiana, the Washington Post demonstrated the impact of grants going to high-poverty neighborhoods and underserved populations.

In Indianapolis, the nonprofit artists collective Big Car is bringing life back to a previously blighted downtown neighborhood by rehabbing abandoned houses for use as housing for artists. Cultural traditions are being kept alive in rural Grant County where a 30-foot-long tunnel in being constructed out of willow branches tied together with centuries-old basket weaving techniques.

The installation will be sturdy enough for its intended audience of children, who will run through and play in the tunnel while learning about basket weaving in the process. In Fort Wayne, Parkview Health’s NEA-funded Healing Arts program engages patients and nurses in simple activities that bring moments of calm during otherwise intensely stressful hospitalizations.

But this impact isn’t limited to Indiana. In local communities around the country, art is improving public health and the delivery of healthcare; helping people as they age; and building resiliency among veterans and their families. Combined with all of the other benefits mentioned above, these investments even pay off in higher property values.

But none of this happens without public funding, which ensures that programs and projects in poverty-stricken neighborhoods and rural communities are financed. It ensures that children attending school in districts that cannot pay for instruction in the arts still get field trips to museums. It brings stature and attention to otherwise low-profile installations, exhibits, and performances and prevents art from devolving into a soulless exercise in appealing to the lowest common denominator.

Public funding for art at the local, state, and federal level isn’t something to tack on when there’s a little extra in the public coffers. It’s necessary for the important work of making our communities places where people want to live, work, and play.

Matt Wilson is the executive director of MASSCreative, a statewide arts advocacy organization in Massachusetts.


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