Funding the arts in America should be a national priority. Bolstering national commitment to the arts will renew America's competitive edge, and have a far-reaching influence on strategic issues of domestic and international security.
President Obama, worried that Singapore or Korea may be incubating the next Steve Jobs, wants to put more math and science teachers in classrooms. Just teaching more math and science, however, doesn't produce brilliant scientists and engineers -- you can't ignite the spark of innovation if the pilot light of creativity isn't lit. A growing body of research connects the practice of arts and music to the essential skills, values and discipline exhibited by great inventors and innovators: "The arts may not be rocket science; but they make rocket science possible."
Today, what distinguishes the Singaporeans and Koreans is their ability to reverse-engineer products and processes, whereas Americans still excel at product concept and design. 'Thinking outside the box,' the ability to tackle challenges from new and unconventional angles, is still considered a uniquely American trait. This is what the arts teach us: to illuminate the human condition, to think in metaphors, to express ideas in thought-provoking ways, to imagine something better -- which is how one moves the world forward.
In 2008, then-Senator Obama argued powerfully for reinvestment in arts education, a platform reinforced by a 2011 White House policy paper. Since then, he has backed off, forced to tighten the nation's belt after bailing out banks that were too big to fail and companies that made cars no one wanted to buy, staying up at night worrying about how to pay for 2,456 of those sexy Lockheed Martin F-35 stealth fighter jets at a price tag of close to $400 billion.
A dysfunctional Congress has been busy rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, chipping away at the NEA budget from a high of $176 million in 1992 to a pitiful $146 million today, less than 50¢ per person. Meanwhile Europe averages $8-$9 per person, even after deep arts budget cuts in countries like the U.K. and Spain. The astute German Culture Minister, Bernd Neumann, calls his country's 5.1% increase in its arts funding commitment "a significant investment in the future of our country," not a "subsidy."
In dire economic times, the arts serve an even more critical function than in times of prosperity. Venezuela has made a massive investment in El Sistema, a network of orchestras which target social change through classical music education for nearly half a million of the nation's underprivileged children. This is not a cultural policy, but a highly targeted national security strategy to keep disadvantaged, at-risk youth off the streets and out of the correctional system, to give them a sense of what discipline and dedication to a higher ideal can achieve.
In America, where the prison population has tripled in 20 years, with 1 out of every 99 adults currently behind bars, and the costs of incarceration estimated at $74 billion in 2011, policy-makers must start implementing arts training as a preventive strategy. One study concludes that at-risk teenagers "who have a history of in-depth arts involvement show better academic outcomes... demonstrate higher rates of college enrollment and attainment... are more likely to show civic-minded behavior than young adults who did not."
Few arts companies today have the bandwidth to tackle this challenge. The tiny but feisty New York Theatre Ballet, boxing way above its weight class, is one of few that do, with an innovative outreach program called LIFT.
Detractors may argue that the private sector does a more effective job of funding the arts than the federal government. However, as we have seen many times over, private patronage is often little more than self-gratification; art that is paid for by billionaires and private corporations usually -- and not unreasonably -- reflects their narrow priorities and aspirations, not the larger community's. When the New York State Theater must give up its perfectly good name to be rechristened the David H. Koch Theater, and when John Fry can fly in a foreign ballet star to partner his girlfriend at Ballet San Jose because his donations eclipse everyone else's, it's clear that private arts funding is no longer serving a broad public purpose.
Private philanthropy is also much more volatile than government funding, as evidenced by the withering of private grant and foundation funding during the recent economic crises. Arts institutions cannot develop programs and nurture artistic talent if donations fluctuate year-to-year according to the whims and fortunes of their individual and corporate donors. Two of America's most talented and prolific modern dance choreographers, Mark Morris and William Forsythe, were nurtured early on by European dance companies who gave them the multi-year funding and infrastructure -- and opportunities to fail -- that they would never have received in America.
As you Peter Orszag-types tot up the costs of funding LIFT and El Sistema programs across the nation, let me point out that cutting just one F-35 from the defense budget would double the NEA budget, leaving Mr. Panetta with 2,455 more. Further reallocating a tiny portion of the defense budget to fund tours for American performing arts companies to strategically important countries makes them a potent weapon in the battle to win hearts and minds -- a strategy employed very successfully after World War II. After all, this is a national security issue, not cultural policy.