Hopes are soaring that President-elect Obama's new public works program will help generate the jobs that have been catastrophically lost in recent months. His plans awaken memories of the New Deal, when President Roosevelt led an unprecedented investment in the nation's infrastructure.
The big WPA projects, like the dams that brought electricity to rural areas, focused on the needs of the day. At the community level, the WPA built schools and libraries and parks.
This time, Mr. Obama and the new Congress should include cultural institutions in the infrastructure program. They have a unique power to generate jobs, stabilize communities, build the tourist industry and stimulate the creative economy that our technology-driven world increasingly depends on.
After September 11, when New York was trying to recover its balance and momentum, the Alliance for the Arts established an effort called The Arts Rebuild New York. We learned that the arts were an engine of recovery, not just another needy sector. When commercial construction stopped, cultural projects like the Museum of Modern Art and the Brooklyn Children's Museum went forward. In the 2003-2005 period, New York cultural institutions spent $1.4 billion on capital construction, generating more than 10,000 jobs over three years.
It's time now for a campaign called The Arts Rebuild America.
Despite the recession, cultural building will take place in many cities because of already committed private and local government funding. In New York City, for example, the Department of Cultural Affairs currently has dedicated nearly $1 billion for hundreds of active projects.
The Obama administration should devote a portion of the new jobs program to matching this local investment in the arts infrastructure. The immediate gain in jobs will lead to the long-term benefit of stronger communities.
Creating jobs is the present reason to invest in culture but there are many others. No other institutions have a greater capacity to instill pride in communities or to foster understanding and tolerance in a diverse society. The United States can lead not just by regaining its prosperity and extending that to all Americans, but by being an example of openness to the cultures of the world.
Investing in America's cultural infrastructure will stimulate the economy and build the society we dream of.