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Stimulate the Arts and Keep American Strong

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In these times of economic crisis, it seems only rational that we should look back at our history to review what works if we want to create jobs and secure a strong economic legacy for future generations.

When faced with a collapsing economy, President Franklin Roosevelt tried to put Americans in all lines of work back on the job. Instead of singling out artists as somehow frivolous and unimportant to our nation's economy, he instituted a host of programs designed to put federal funds into the arts, employing America's creative talent and leaving a cultural legacy that endures still today.

The highpoint of this commitment was the Works Progress Administration's Federal One program, which put thousands of Americans to work in the arts. The government program was a lifeline for Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Orson Welles, Burt Lancaster, Sidney Lumet, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Studs Terkel, John Cheever, Saul Bellow, and thousands of other artists across the country.

These programs created much-needed jobs in the immediate term, but they did much more. They fostered great talents that otherwise may have been lost. The work of the many great artists supported by the government in the 1930s still benefits us today. Their contributions to our culture endure, and their successful careers resulted in employment for many others in the years that followed.

Today, however, many of our leaders apparently have forgotten this lesson of our not-so-distant history. Faced with an economic downturn of staggering proportions, some attack any help for the arts as waste, ignoring the millions of Americans who earn their livings and support their families through their artistic endeavors and arts-related enterprises.

The economic stimulus bill currently under consideration on Capitol Hill shouldn't neglect these Americans. The version of the bill passed by the House of Representatives contains $50 million in funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, which provides critical support for America's not-for-profit arts institutions. This provision has been attacked as "pork" by some, while the Senate bill currently provides nothing for the NEA. To make matters worse, this week Senators stripped out a provision intended to provide the same job creating benefits for the film industry as the bill provides for other industries.

Why is it so hard for some to realize that jobs in the arts support millions of Americans and are no less worthy than any other job that puts food on the table? Economic studies indicate that 2.98 million Americans are employed in the arts or in arts-centric businesses. Each dollar allocated to the arts not only supports those individuals; the benefits flow outward to their communities and to other businesses. Movie production doesn't require only actors and directors. Stay for the credits after a film ends and you can't help but notice the incredible army of workers required to bring a story to the screen. In turn, each of those individuals and businesses spends money and pays taxes in their communities. The economic returns and stimulative effects are clear.

Beyond the finances, though, investing in the arts during these tough times can ensure that America doesn't lose a generation of creative talent to our temporary economic woes. Somewhere in America today, there are individuals with the potential of Orson Welles and the artistic gifts of Mark Rothko. It is foolhardy to attempt to save our economy by ignoring our talent.