The Importance of the Arts and Government Funding

Yesterday, Howard Sherman, the director of the American Theatre Wing posted a blog entitled This is not a Political Blog.  In this blog post, he opens a discussion about why governments find it so easy to cut arts funding programs, like the National Endowment for the Arts in the US, or the various arts programs that have been cut (or threatened with cuts) in Canada (for example see the situation in BC).

The heart of the discussion starts with this statement:

The reason the NEA (and the NEH and NPR and PBS) make for such easy targets is that their audiences and their artists fail to make a case for their intrinsic value.

He has an excellent point.  Those of us who are involved in the arts and for whom the arts matter to a great deal can talk about how important the arts are, but mostly we’re preaching to the choir.  How do we make this something that people who aren’t involved in the arts believe in?  In the blog post, Mr. Sherman talks about how, from time to time, there have been talks about creating a “Got milk” advertising campaign for the arts.  After all, pork, cotton and milk still have to remind people of their importance, why not the arts?

But is an advertising campaign really the way to go about it?  I’m not so sure.  How would an advertising campaign be paid for?  If the people behind the campaign used even a few cents of public money, you know for a fact that this would be jumped on by the folks at The Sun, and likely decried by the conservative leaders (See Stephen Harper’s “Average Canadians” comments from a few years ago).  So, what to do?

The part of the blog post that really got me thinking was this:

A big part of the problem is that those of us who are profoundly dedicated to the arts hold them as a sacred belief; we are called to them as surely as religious leaders are called to the cloth. Yet to pursue the comparison, religious leaders spend one day every week making the case for the relevancy and value of their religion (these are called sermons), while we spend our time selling tickets to individual productions or exhibits.

He’s absolutely right.  We don’t spend a lot of time making the case for the relevancy or value of our craft.  Rather, we do a lot of shilling for people to buy show tickets.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t be trying to sell our shows.  Rather, why aren’t we spending more time encouraging people to go to other people’s shows as well?  And not just within the same disciplines.  Theatre people should be promoting dancers, art gallery shows, etc.  How else can we raise awareness of the arts that are occurring all around us.

People who are passionate about the arts “get” that they are important.  People who don’t really care about the arts (and thus don’t go to see shows, galleries, etc), don’t see why they are important.  For them, the arts are something for the “elite” or the rich.  Something that’s not for them.  And I think that in a way, we feed this belief by doing little more than promoting our own stuff.  If we’re not acting as boosters for the arts in general then how can someone who thinks of the arts as a waste of public money think of us as anything other than (as our Prime Minister put it) whiners complaining about our cushy, subsidized lifestyles [paraphrased].

I think we all need to do more to talk up other shows, other artists, other disciplines.  We all need to work harder to raise general awareness of the arts, bridge the gap between those who care about the arts, and those who don’t yet care about the arts.

To that end, if you have something you want me to promote, let me know about it.  I’ll promote the heck out of it, be it theatre, dance, a gallery show, whatever.  All I ask, is that you do the same.  Promote a show that’s not yours.  Promote something outside of your discipline.  Boost the arts in general, rather than just the thing you are directly involved with.

How else can we “make the case for the case for the relevancy and value of our art”?

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