Is Art Important?

04/07/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

We narrowly avoided a catastrophe this week in LA. "This is the first time the arts community was able to mobilize in such an effective way," said Danielle Brazell, Executive Director of the arts advocacy group Arts for LA, which led the fight. "The arts locked arms and we were one community, and that's extraordinary." The Los Angeles Times reported that the coordinated outreach got to the Council members, and the motion that would have eliminated the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs' entire grant budget and almost half of its staff was taken off the table.

We had a victory this week, but it reminded me that there is a fundamental problem. The total grant budget of the Department of Cultural Affairs is only about $3.1 million, which may not seem like a lot. If, however, you consider that every grant dollar creates $8, and that one in every six jobs in greater LA is in the creative sector, this is a relatively small investment with a big return. And these grants are really important to nonprofit institutions because they give them legitimacy, helping to draw private and corporate funding. 

The simple fact is that the arts are an important part of the economy, cultural tourism and add to the quality of our lives. Why is this forgotten each time there is a budget crisis, not just in Los Angeles but across the country?

Steve Jobs said this week at the launch of the iPad that Apple stands "at the intersection of technology and the liberal arts." (Although it would probably have been more accurate if he had said, as Stephen Frye noted in the Guardian, that "Apple stands at the intersection of technology, the liberal arts and commerce.") Jobs attributes Apple's success to its "cultural seriousness," but ironically, my dear friend and co-conspirator Jesse Stagg discovered that when you download the Software Developers Kit for iPad and are asked to check the fields of your "primary market," there is no "art" silo. 

To me, Apple's disconnect reflects a fundamental problem for art, and I would like to argue for all of the "liberal arts." If art is important, why isn't it a channel on YouTube? Or why doesn't it appear on Yahoo!'s homepage? Or more than once a month on CNN? Or on any of the major news channels? I guess it comes as no surprise that the arts are in a bit of a crisis.

The arts weren't even mentioned in the State of the Union and don't register (at least I can't find it) on the New York Times' graphic of the President's proposed budget. 

Frank Rich reflected in a New York Times op-ed, The State of the Union is Comatose, that "...our union is not strong. It is paralyzed. Many Americans were more eagerly anticipating Steve Jobs' address in San Francisco on Wednesday morning" (By the way, the iPad announcement took place at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.) "than the President's speech that night because they have far more confidence in Apple than Washington to produce concrete change."

Instead of talking about reducing funds for the arts, we should make sure that as part of the country's recovery efforts, programs like the New Deal's Work Progress Administration (WPA) are resurrected and funding for the NEA and local cultural agencies are increased, rather than cut in cities across the country. We need to support creative thinking like that of John Fetterman, the Mayor of Braddock, Pennsylvania, who, as Sam Martin in Designmind wrote, is "rebuilding his poverty-stricken, crumbling, crime-ridden community of 3,000. Not surprisingly, the turnaround started with art." First, the people got together to beautify their town - painting brightly colored murals, signs and their houses. And now the Mayor is inviting artists to come there to live and work inexpensively. "Art wasn't the only thing the citizens of Braddock used to lift their community out of the ashes but it was a simple, viable starting point that could make an immediate impact on both the image of the town and the sense of community within the town." We need new thinking like Fetterman's, and innovation, which stems from creativity, and art feeds creativity.

FDR realized what art could do to both alleviate economic woe, lighten the mood, and instill confidence when he started the Federal Art Project (FAP) and the Public Works of Art Program (PWAP) as part of the New Deal. These programs lasted for about ten years between 1933 and the early 1940s and funded over 200,000 murals, sculptures, posters, embroideries, furniture designs, and more for the country's non-federal government buildings. This is how Jackson Pollock, Stuart Davis, Mark Rothko and other seminal modern American artists got their start. One imagines that the value of the lasting art work is in the tens of billions. Not a bad investment.

As a country we need to answer the question "Is Art Important?" and if the arts have failed to communicate, and I fear that they have, we need to step it up. We can't just react to crises, we have to energize and redefine the dialogue.

All for art. Art for all.