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While other countries fight to save the arts, America is throwing them under the bus

CULTURE CANCELING

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BY DUSTIN GLATZ WITH ASSETS FROM SHUTTERSTOCK
  • By Dustin Glatz with assets from Shutterstock

From a big-picture perspective, the last few weeks have shown promising signs for beleaguered music and arts communities around the world.

Last month, for example, the British government announced the details of its $2 billion Emergency Arts Fund. The first $3 million of it will go toward helping small music venues keep from permanently closing.

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And just last week, the German government announced its own allocation of $3.5 million to buy works by artists who’ve been financially devastated during the current pandemic. The funds will come from an emergency stimulus package that included $1.2 billion to “restart” the culture sector, $170 million of which has been allocated to live music.

Both of these commitments have earned favorable comparisons in the European press to Franklin Roosevelt’s Depression-era WPA (Works Progress Administration), which created public work projects that employed thousands of artists around the country.

At the moment, though, America has more pressing matters to deal with. Last Thursday, as newspapers reported that the Metropolitan Museum of Art is cutting another 10 percent of its staff, Washington politicians were feverishly engaged in last-minute negotiations over an emergency stimulus package that threatened to cut into their well-deserved August vacation.  

The U.S. isn’t helping artists anymore. - WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
  • Wikimedia Commons
  • The U.S. isn’t helping artists anymore.

Wartime president Donald Trump, meanwhile, was attempting to wrestle TikTok to the mat, demanding that its parent company ByteDance sell the popular video-
sharing app to Microsoft. 

Given that artists and musicians can no longer draw income from public performances, gallery showings or customers with discretionary income, it was inevitable that most would be hit hard by the current lockdown. In fact, the nonprofit advocacy group Americans for the Arts recently conducted a study of more than 10,000 working artists, nearly two-thirds of whom have become unemployed within the last four months.

Of course, at a time when both political parties appear to be watching the stock market more closely than the coronavirus death toll, it’s no surprise that arts organizations are being left out in the cold alongside so many others. But the widening gap in arts funding between the U.S. and the rest of the developed world long predates the current pandemic.

As just one example, let’s consider America’s track record when it comes to music spending. The government of France, which has been described as the country of cultural interventionism, spends more than $300 million per year in public music funding. England spends more than $200 million. Spain more than $100 million. 

And what about the government of the United States, a country with twice the population of those three countries combined? The U.S. spends less than $10 million.

HOW DID WE GET HERE?

America didn’t always treat the arts this way. While it may seem hard to believe at the moment, there was a time when our government valued the role that the arts play in stimulating the economy and bridging cultural divides.

LIGHTFIELD STUDIO / SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
  • LightField Studio / Shutterstock.com

That was never more apparent than during the Roosevelt administration’s New Deal and aforementioned WPA initiative. In addition to providing jobs for so many artists, the project created a lasting legacy of public murals, poignant photos, and oral histories that told the stories of the working-class people whose lives were devastated during the Great Depression. 

Two decades later, in the late ’50 and early ’60s, the civil rights struggle and escalating arms race sent America’s reputation around the world into freefall. With the Soviet Union jamming our Voice of America propaganda broadcasts, the U.S. State Department responded by hiring musicians like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck and Benny Goodman to tour the world as America’s cultural ambassadors. But over time, the U.S. government’s love affair with the arts would begin to wane.

A year after signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Lyndon Johnson created the National Endowment for the Arts, an independent federal agency charged with supporting and promoting the arts for all Americans. Politicians largely ignored the agency, until controversial works by Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano showed up in galleries that had received NEA grants.

Right-wing politicians led by the unabashedly racist Jesse Helms soon realized that art not only threatened the status quo, but could also be used as a wedge issue to promote their own political careers. By the 1990s, Republicans were calling for the NEA to be eliminated entirely. The agency’s future was in such jeopardy that even the most commercial arts organizations came to its defense. During one Grammy Award telecast, the president of the Recording Academy delivered a three-minute speech about the importance of the arts and the NEA in particular. 

THE TRUMP FACTOR

Trump’s 2021 budget proposal once again calls for the elimination of the NEA. - DROP OF LIGHT / SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
  • Drop of Light / Shutterstock.com
  • Trump’s 2021 budget proposal once again calls for the elimination of the NEA.

Today, the NEA once again finds itself in the political crosshairs. Since the cultural benefits of the arts are impossible to quantify, the agency has taken to extolling its contributions to the country’s bottom line. 

“The arts [annually] contribute $763.6 billion to the U.S. economy, more than agriculture, transportation, or warehousing,” the agency contends. “The arts employ 4.9 million workers across the country with earnings of more than $370 billion. Furthermore, the arts exported $20 billion more than imported, providing a positive trade balance.”

That argument has largely been falling on deaf ears of late. Trump’s 2021 budget proposal once again calls for the elimination of the NEA. 

Which is not to say that the president isn’t fond of the arts. After all, he did request a Van Gogh painting from the Guggenheim to display in his living quarters. The museum turned down the honor, instead offering a solid 18-karat-gold toilet by the artist Maurizio Cattelan. 

So what’s a starving artist — or any of us for that matter — to do? 

The Trump administration has one potential solution. Last month, Ivanka Trump launched her “Find Something New” initiative, which encourages out-of-work Americans to step out of their comfort zone and overcome the obstacles that are standing between them and a challenging new career.

Go to the campaign’s website, and you’ll find a dozen new career suggestions, each with a link to get you started. You might, for instance, choose to be an MRI technician, an elevator installer, a contact tracer, a web developer, or even an aerospace engineer. 

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Conspicuously absent from the list are occupations like artist, musician and, most likely, whatever it is that you’ve been doing to make your living. 

Still, there’s no denying that Ivanka Trump knows where you’re coming from. After all, she herself has been a model, a clothing designer, an author and an executive in the Trump family hotel business.

“I’m confident that even if your path is different from the one you imagined, ultimately it can be better than you could ever have planned,” she says with Stepford Daughter sincerity in one Find Something New PSA. “In my own life, I’ve found that my greatest personal growth has arisen from times of discomfort and uncertainty that one can only really appreciate in hindsight.”  

All of that may sound like a less realistic take on the Cambodian government encouraging tourist-industry workers to move out of the cities and take up farming. Then again, desperate times call for desperate measures. And as a whole lot of politicians will find themselves unemployed after the November elections, we can at least count on them to set an example. 

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