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Raymond J. Learsy Headshot

The President's Address and the National Endowment for the Arts

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President Obama in his resonant State of the Union Address calling upon Americans to win the future cited the first step as encouraging American innovation. His words were clear, "What we can do -- what America does better than anyone else -- is spark the creativity and imagination of our people."

And yet, hardly two days before a group of Republicans led by Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Chairman of the Senate Steering Committee called for the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), a government agency that has been a cornerstone to the support of American art and artists, whose work and creativity touches the very sinews of who we are and what we are about.

Who are these 'Republicans"? I can well remember as a Reagan presidential appointee, during the six years of service on the National Council of the NEA, a White House that was consistently supportive and interested in the NEA's mission (perhaps an interest a bit weighted toward the film arts-my aside). This support came from America's quintessential Republican president who probably more that anyone understood his mandate and those who vested it in him.

According to Robert Lynch president of American for the Arts in an interview with the New York Times this week that the arts provide 5.7 million jobs in the United States and generates $30 billion in taxes, nearly $13 billion of which goes to the Federal Government. "If they are serious about jobs and they're serious about income they would invest more in the arts," Lynch was quoted.

Yet as important as they are, the budgetary issues are secondary to what the National Endowment stands for and what it means to the nation. Our government's support for the Endowment is basic to signaling its recognition of the importance of the "creativity and imagination of our people."

Just as an aside, given the billions upon billions that flowed to our financial sector, the NEA's annual budget of $167.5 million is a sad commentary of how our government respects and values the arts -- an issue that does not stand us well in the perception of others, nor does fair service to one of the key determinants to the quality of our lives.

As but one comparison France's Ministry of Culture has a budget that would be the equivalent of an NEA budget of $9 billion relative to size of population. The mandates of the NEA and France's Ministry are somewhat different but the numbers speak for themselves.

This may come across as hyperbole but it is not. The NEA is as important to the nation, its spirit, its sense of self, as many of our Government Departments and Agencies. It is long past time that this be recognized.