Feed the Arts, Starve a Recession?

Features, Top Stories — By on September 14, 2012 12:22 pm

“People might want to save a buck now by cutting arts funding, but we’ll pay for it later,” said Nancy Cobb Lippens, director of Indiana State University’s School of Music.

“Our civilization will largely survive in the works of our creation. There is a quality in art which speaks across the gulf dividing man from man and nation from nation, and century from century. That quality confirms the faith that our common hopes may be more enduring than our conflicting hostilities.”

When President Lyndon B. Johnson made this remark during the swearing in of the first members of the National Council of Arts, he likely had no idea that what many find inspiring, others would find inflammatory.

In fact, he had just loosed yet another highly contentious issue for politicians to bandy back and forth in the years to come. 

Government funding of the arts has been the bane of many U.S. politicians — and taxpayers, too — for years, particularly since that day on Sept. 29, 1965, when President Johnson signed the law creating the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

And in today’s sluggish economy, it’s a particularly pithy debate, whether occurring in the halls of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., during the General Assembly at the Indiana Statehouse or over a cup of coffee at Clabber Girl in Terre Haute.

In a state that is home to nearly 9,000 arts-related businesses employing almost 54,000 workers, the Hoosier arts industry is nevertheless seeing it especially rough. Nationally, Indiana ranks 37th in per capita spending on the arts at $0.63, according to the latest figures from 2010. The national average is $1.18. And as each subsequent fiscal year threatens yet another budget reduction, the Indiana Arts Coalition and related groups are fighting to keep that number from sinking further.

But with the state unemployment level running at 8.2 percent and one out of every five of Indiana’s children living below the poverty level, who wants to even consider sending tax dollars to fund a luxury like the arts? There’s no shortage of Hoosier politicians — and concerned residentss, too — who will tell you that when it comes down to a choice between helping people put food on their tables or a pretty statue in the park, there simply is no choice.

An Economic Stimulant

Or is there?

According to a large number of educators — and businesspeople, too — by starving the arts politicans could just be sinking the economy even further.

“In essence, it teaches critical thinking and innovation. It also teaches persistence, as students tackle the problems presented in art and learn to explore new options,” said Brad Venable, associate professor of art.

The arts stimulate more than our senses; they stimulate our thinking, too. And, in turn, that stimulates invention and, subsequently, the economy. Take the case of Albert Einstein. Where would the world be today if he hadn’t been able to turn to his violin to help him relax any time he became stuck in his thought process?

“People might want to save a buck now by cutting arts funding, but we’ll pay for it later,” said Nancy Cobb Lippens, director of Indiana State University’s School of Music. A published composer whose works including “Threnody” and “The Seven Last Words,” Cobb Lippens has also been a teacher for the past 37 years, nurturing the talents of young musicians in universities across the Midwest and South.

There’s something a solid foundation in the arts brings to the table that goes far beyond students honing a particular talent, she said — and that’s a competitive edge.

“When I was growing up in school we had arts education, visual arts and music classes as a normal part of the curriculum. Kids don’t have that today. People seem to consider arts a frill when it comes time for budget cuts, but that’s not the right thought,” Cobb Lippens reasoned.

“For years our public schools have been the envy of the world. People from China, for example, send their children here because of the value of the creative thinking we teach. It’s much more than just facts and figures being taught there.

“It’s what helps us be creative and think outside the box.”

Brad Venable agrees. Before coming to ISU in 2002, the now associate professor of art education taught art in Terre Haute’s public school system in grades K–12.  Throughout the years, he’s seen the emphasis on the arts ebb and flow.

“You can’t blame school administrators for cutting arts programs when they are having to make tough decisions about budgets,” he said, “but it is important to keep in mind that art isn’t just about that piece that will be hanging on the refrigerator at the end of the day. It’s about the process of getting to that piece and what the student learns throughout.

“In essence, it teaches critical thinking and innovation. It also teaches persistence, as students tackle the problems presented in art and learn to explore new options.”

Numerous studies support what Venable and Cobb Lippens have to say.

“ “It’s what helps us be creative and think outside the box.” – Nancy Cobb Lippens

Students with an education rich in the arts are shown to have higher GPAs and standardized test scores, lower dropout rates and even better attitudes about community service, regardless of socio-economic status. University of Pennsylvania researchers found that a high concentration of the arts in a city leads to higher civic engagement, more social cohesion, higher child welfare and lower poverty rates, too.

The arts also can make us healthier. Nearly half the nation’s healthcare institutions provide arts programming for patients and more than three-quarters of those say they do it because of their healing benefits. Studies prove they result in shorter hospital stays, better pain management and less medication.

Then there is the economic impact.

An analysis of Dun and Bradstreet data, for example, counts 905,689 businesses in the United States involved in the creation or distribution of the arts. They employ 3.35 million people, representing 4.42 percent of all businesses and 2.15 percent of all employees, respectively.

Another study, this one by Americans for the Arts, examined the impact the nonprofit arts and culture industry had on the U.S. economy in 2010. Nationally, the study said, the industry generated $135.2 billion of economic activity—$61.1 billion by the nation’s nonprofit arts and culture organizations in addition to $74.1 billion in event-related spending by their audiences.

This economic activity supported 4.13 million full-time jobs and generated $86.68 billion in resident household income, the study continued. The arts also generated $22.3 billion in revenue to local, state and federal governments every year—a yield well beyond their collective $4 billion in arts allocations.

A solid arts foundation leads to a better employee, too. The Conference Board, an independent business and research organization, conducted a study showing that creativity is among the top five applied skills sought by business leaders. Nearly three fourths said that “creativity is of high importance” when hiring.

“Just look at the people who are making millions of dollars today,” Cobb Lippens said. “They all talk about the creative thinking skills they were taught in school that has helped them get where they are. 

Proof Positive

“I think the key thing, is that the arts and humanities teach us things won’t always be in terms of black and white, and we are openly encouraged to test the parameters and bring a level of creativity to what we do,” said Mark Banes, '81.

General Motors’ executive and ISU graduate Mark Barnes, ’81, is a case in point. He came from a family of musicians — his father was the chairman of ISU’s music department when Mark was growing up — so it was only natural that the son would navigate to music, too. But he did it with a twist. He majored in music, minored in marketing and thus became one of the first ISU students to graduate with a concentration in music business.

Today, Barnes lives and works in Shanghai where he is GM’s vice president in charge of international operations, sales, marketing and aftersales. He also serves as chief country operations officer for Sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa and Australia. Before joining GM in May this year, he worked in similar positions at Volkswagen, Chrysler, Hyundai and Nissan.

How does a musician end up as a vice president at an automotive powerhouse?

By doing what all good musicians do — improvising.

“I wanted to work in the music business for Fender guitar or Yamaha or any of those types of companies.  I had an internship while at ISU with the American Music Conference and really immersed myself in it and enjoyed it,” Barnes explained. “But it was the early 1980s when I got out of school and there was a recession and no jobs in the music business.”

However, along with music Barnes has a huge passion for cars. “So I interviewed with Ford on campus and they hired me straight out of ISU. It started me on the road to my career.”

His music background has set him up solidly for what he faces in his job every day, Barnes said.

“The little pieces that come together from all the different things that you learn as a musician can help you in so many ways. You understand the power of performance and individuality and of making sure you create something that will last a lifetime.

“I think the key thing,” he added, “is that the arts and humanities teach us things won’t always be in terms of black and white, and we are openly encouraged to test the parameters and bring a level of creativity to what we do.”

The business world is the perfect outlet for such innovation, Barnes thinks, and GM is a prime example why.

“As we go through the types of things this company has had to go through in recent years, if we weren’t creative we would be seeing it much more difficult than what we are seeing now,” he explained.

So if he were asked by a legislator to give three good reasons why government should continue to support the arts, how would Barnes respond?

“It’s all about the three D’s: desire, discipline, dedication,” Barnes said. “An arts and humanities degree teaches people these three very important things, and you need all three to be effective. If you don’t, you won’t succeed.”

And if a student asked why, given today’s dismal job market and general disregard for the arts, should they take any humanities courses — much less major in the arts — what would he say?

“Don’t be afraid to follow your dream,” he answered. “If you’re majoring in music or art and it doesn’t work out, look at other options and challenge yourself to try new things.

“A strong background in the arts prepares you so well to move into a number of avenues and careers.”

Obviously, Barnes and many other leaders just like him are proof positive of why the arts are a good investment — and just one more reason why generations to come should be offered the opportunity.

“After all,” said Venable, “when it comes to wanting to invest in programs that set students up for their futures, we need to remember that the arts complement all career paths, whether medicine, engineering, science or whatever. 

“It shouldn’t come down to a choice between one or the other.”

Laurel Harper is a freelance writer living in Louisville, Ky.


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