Nov. 8, 2000
Dear Mr. President and newly elected federal officials, whomever you may be:
I’m not as yet sure who will actually receive this letter: Someone is going to finally win in Florida, someone else isn’t. But I can’t wait any longer to write this letter. Because our theatre can’t wait. Our arts can’t wait. Our nation can’t wait any longer.
Even if you have been following our community or the National Endowment for the Arts, you are likely to have misperceptions about who we are, what we do, why we matter. So let me offer you a quick study sheet of 10 things I hope you know:
- The arts are at the core of healthy economic communities. Every dollar spent on an arts ticket typically leverages an additional $3-7 for the local economy.
The arts community is more than merely artists and administrators. A recent publication from the Colorado School to Career Partnership listed more than 250 separate occupations dependent on the arts and noted 4,000 full-time jobs currently occupied in the Denver area alone.
Leadership in any area is cultivated by the arts. Daniel Goleman, in his book Working with Emotional Intelligence, says that the primary indicator of success in today’s working world is “emotional intelligence”—empathy, team building, the ability to listen to and motivate others, self-awareness, self-confidence and self-control; commitment and integrity; the ability to communicate, initiate and accept change. These are the very principles instilled by the arts.
Educational performance is enhanced by the arts. Arts students typically outperform non-arts students by 50 points on verbal tests and 44 points on math tests.
After-school arts programs outperform all other after-school activities (including sports) in teaching collaboration, instilling self-awareness, increasing self-esteem, building pro-civic and pro-social values, and reducing discipline problems.
The arts and artists need economic support. Ticket sales typically cover only 60 percent of expenses of a theatre production. Contrary to popular argument, federal subsidy is actually insurance against elitism, providing vital subsidy, ensuring that tickets can remain affordable and equitable for as many as possible. And if you’re worried about “fat-cat artists,” more than 70 percent of artists nationwide earned less than $7,000 from their art in the late ’90s, according to a study from Columbia University, and one in five artists is without health care.
The NEA budget, at a mere $105 million, falls midway between the funding levels of 1977 and 1978. The agency operates with roughly half the staff it had at the beginning of the last decade, and in terms of inflated dollars falls below the 1972 level, when the budget was $32 million (excluding only the post-controversy levels of the late 1990s). Any politician concerned about eliminating federal bloat—both financial and personnel—needs to look elsewhere.
NEA dollars do not impose programming on communities. Every project considered by the NEA must demonstrate that at least half the funds required come from other sources, including individual contributions, ticket revenues and foundation grants. We talk about the power of the NEA to leverage other funds: perhaps it’s time to say that NEA funds make local community dreams come true.
NEA dollars are at work in your district, whether you know it or not. Forty percent of grant funds are already distributed through state arts agencies; many local arts groups receive these dollars, although the state, rather than the NEA, receives the credit. That New York dance company that came through town last year? Chances are, NEA funds were at work making the tour possible to your home.
The arts change lives. A UCLA study indicates that students involved in theatre are 40 percent more likely to interact with members of other racial groups and 40 percent less likely to endorse racist remarks and attitudes than other students. We will never find a constructive solution for our political problems without the racial respect and understanding, without the empathy that the arts promote in every participant.
Ultimately, however, people respond to the arts not because of studies and data but because at some point in their lives they heard a strain of Bach or saw Swan Lake or watched an actor play Hamlet—and their lives were changed.
Supporting the arts has always been a bipartisan activity. Whether as a Democrat you hearken back to the inspiration of the Kennedys as arts patrons and the establishment of the NEA by President Johnson, or as a Republican take pride in recognizing that the most dramatic growth in federal arts subsidy occurred under Presidents Nixon and Ford, this is an activity you can undertake.
You have been charged, by your election, with overseeing our long-term investments in intellectual achievement and excellence. With ensuring our economic power and health. With cultivating your own empathic skills so as to respond to constituents in their hours of need. With maximizing your own leadership potential. And in the wake of acrimonious debate, long hours and unrelenting pressures, with finding opportunities for spiritual refreshment, renewal, inspiration and insight that will allow you to move forward the next day.
In short, maybe you need the arts most of all. We’ll look for you in our theatres.