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Public Support of the Arts at the State and Local Level

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Musician John Legend said it best while accepting his award last month for Citizen Artist: "Being a mayor is one of the toughest jobs in the country, and one of the most important ones as well. Mayors understand how important the arts are to our cities." Last month, I had the honor of presenting awards to Mayors David Coss of Santa Fe and Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans, as well as Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley, for their outstanding leadership in the advancement of the arts. Each has demonstrated immense dedication to the development of arts programming, and their extraordinary leadership and commitment to cultural initiatives and advancement of the arts showcases the key role the arts play in spurring economic growth while simultaneously enhancing quality of life. These awards are in partnership with the United States Conference of Mayors (USCM), with whom I have had the honor of collaborating for over twenty years.

While these leaders are among the hundreds, if not thousands, of mayors and scores of governors who understand the economic and emotional value the arts bring to their communities, there are still those elected officials out there who do not understand what a crucial role the arts play in defining and sustaining the health and wealth of local and state economies. As such, we at Americans for the Arts continually work to educate elected officials at all levels as to why the arts matter. Maryland's Governor O'Malley, former mayor of Baltimore, said at the ceremony, "The arts don't just make cities safer, they make them more vibrant...we don't need less opportunity, but more; and we don't need less art, but more!" As a musician himself, the governor knows these facts firsthand.

Most people don't realize that ticket sales account for only about half of an arts organization's operating budget. In America the success model for arts support has been a three-way partnership, comprising public support, private support and earned income. About 60 percent comes for earned income (ticket sales, souvenirs, drink sales, etc.). Private support accounts for about 30 percent: 24 percent coming from individual arts patrons, 4 percent from foundations, 3 percent from corporations. A grand total of 9 percent comes from the federal (3 percent), state (2 percent) and local (4 percent) governments.

The importance of government support should not be overlooked. The money is valuable, but the leverage is what's key. Nonprofit arts organizations use these government grants to attract other funders. I often refer to government grants as a "nod of approval" - they let other funders know that arts organizations have passed a review by a panel of their peers and are producing outstanding work.

When talking to elected officials, business leaders, or even artists, I like to ask how much money they think is appropriated each year for the nonprofit arts in America at all levels of government. I get answers from "not enough" to "hundreds of billions of dollars." The actual answer is about $4 billion out of $61 billion, which is the total you get if you add up all the budgets of all the nonprofit art organizations. Of this $4 billion, the majority of which sustains great national treasures like the Smithsonian, only $1.1 billion was appropriated to make grants to directly support nonprofit arts groups nationwide in 2012. The federal government invested $143 million in the National Endowment for the Arts, the nation's 50 states and six territories invested $263 million, while local governments invested $706 million. Clearly this is a tiny amount of government investment, but what a powerful lever in encouraging other resources.

One has to ask why the local governments invest almost twice as much as both the federal and state governments combined. The answer: local elected officials (mayors, city council members, etc.) clearly understand the economic value of a robust arts scene in their city because they see it firsthand every day. They work to support it because they know for every dollar that they invest in the nonprofit arts, $6 returns to the city coffer in the form of taxes. And they know that the arts are a booming industry. And that goes for schools, too. Philadelphia's Mayor Michael Nutter, the President of USCM, said onstage at our event, "Art, music and cultural activities must be considered a standard part of the curricula...but when the axe comes down, those are the first to go. It's just bad policy from the start."

According to Americans for the Arts' 2012 Arts & Economic Prosperity study, the nonprofit arts and culture industry generated $135.2 billion dollars of economic activity--$61.1 billion in spending by nonprofit arts and culture organizations, plus an additional $74.1 billion in spending by their audiences. This economic activity has a significant impact on the nation's economy, supporting 4.1 million full-time equivalent jobs, and generating $22.3 billion in revenue to local, state and federal governments--a yield well beyond their collective $4 billion in arts appropriations.

So, as we enter into budget season, let us applaud the great elected officials who invest in the power of the arts, and hope that our elected officials realize that they are not "giving" money to the arts, or even just "appropriating." Rather, they are "investing" in the arts as they are valuable contributors to the business community. The arts are also employers, producers, consumers and key promoters of their cities and regions. Without needed local and state governmental support, the nonprofit arts and culture industry wouldn't be the drivers of business and the key component to economic sustainability and future prosperity they are today. But the most important value of the arts is not about money. Governor O'Malley put it well when accepting his award: "The arts are the great expression of the human spirit. People can express themselves and feel the depth of that expression."