For the Non-Art Lover: A Case for Taxpayer Support of the Arts

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So art is pretty and inspiring and all that, but let’s cut to the chase: Why should the community of taxpayers who are not directly involved in the arts support them?

A prevailing viewpoint is that public funds should be dedicated primarily to costs related to the maintenance and improvement of a region’s infrastructure—roads, bridges, waste management, emergency services and the like—and secondarily to attracting or retaining businesses, jobs, people, and generating new external funding. Within that view, how does support of the arts contribute on the national, state, or local level?

First, while the arts are “not-for-profit,” they are not revenue-neutral. They are revenue-positive in the same way most for-profit businesses are: They generate paychecks and purchase supplies and materials and services from other businesses. Like any sports venue, they generate revenue for many other adjacent businesses, such as restaurants, bars, and parking lots. In many cities or regions, when the arts work together with businesses and municipalities to produce major festivals, the economic impact on all partners is positive in the forms of new audiences, new sales, and new tax generation. The activity of the arts, week in and week out, means revenue for businesses that could not have generated it otherwise; businesses and regions have expanded with it (as in “cultural tourism”) and have come to count heavily on it. The presence and support of the arts ripples widely.

Arts activity consistently brings people to places in ways that make fertile ground for subsequent business development. In cities everywhere, stories abound of areas that were “homesteaded” by artists, developed into funky, tourist areas, and then gentrified and fully developed. In Buffalo, N.Y., in a huge hulk of a decaying windshield wiper factory, the building’s Canadian owner, Elgin Wolfe, overcame people’s natural fear of the building and neighborhood by bringing in three large arts organizations (Buffalo Arts Studios, Hallwalls Gallery, and Just Buffalo Literary Center). These were deliberate first major tenants for Wolfe, who had used the “arts first” approach successfully in Toronto. Thousands of people were brought there at little or no cost to Wolfe, which he clearly understood, and within a comparatively short time, the building was filled with all manner of tenants, bringing jobs and all the benefits of a building that remains full today.

There is no question at all that the approach of “leading with the arts” is also demonstrating enormous success at Buffalo’s emerging “Canalside” harbor district, which recently announced that due to a deliberate increase in free public arts activities, fully three times the number of people visited there than did a short three years ago—an increase from 150,000 to nearly 500,000. And yet, beyond some minor infrastructure improvement, no significant building has taken place. No retail development, no matter how large, or with whatever cachet, could have made that kind of progress that quickly. What is critical to any business considering opening in Buffalo at Canalside—or at similar waterfront developments around the country—is that arts activity means hundreds of thousands of people already go there—there’s no need for them to promote themselves to nearly the extent they would have in the absence of the arts activity. It’s fertile ground now, wide open, well travelled, and with endless potential primarily because of the activity of arts organizations that are only partially supported by public funds.

It is a cliché that young people are leaving Buffalo and many other Rust Belt cities in droves. While the truth behind the numbers is much more subtle than that, the fact is that in any number of national studies and correlating city studies, “cultural opportunities for young people” is right behind “job opportunities” as a reason for staying in or moving to a region. Music, art, performance, public space to participate in these…all are critical considerations to people when deciding on a place to live. Because of the historic national, state, and local support of the arts over the years, Western New York and many other regions have incredible arrays of offerings, which have been noted in a variety of national business and travel magazines, which are read and used by businesspeople making decisions regarding moving into or expanding within a region. All other things being equal, why should major national business magazines care about the arts offerings of cities around the country? Because it matters to a company’s bottom line that their employees love where they live.

Finally, the arts are not, and should never be, limited to artists and “arts lovers.” Creativity exists in everything that people do. It takes huge amounts of imagination and critical thinking to run a business (I grew up in a family business), or to create and manage a manufacturing process, or design a new widget, or promote different living environments. Art and creative thought is sought and appreciated by people who must turn thinking into action, and action into profit. The creative thinker—Steve Jobs, for example, and a thousand others like him—is the one who succeeds where others don’t, who expands when others stay static, and who drives change toward the new, and the untried, and the next best thing—or the next best place. And the key—perhaps the only—place where creativity, business, art, education, youth, and experience come together is the public library. It is my absolute conviction that the roles of public libraries should be rapidly developed in this regard. Its funding is critical to the cross-sector interactions that will continue to drive the country’s reimagining. No art, no imagination.

Support for the arts is not simply support for strange poetry readings (I’m a poet), or inscrutable plays, or art that “my kid could have done.” It is support for creative thinking—done by all sectors and all people (even politicians)—and forward motion. Without imagination fostered by arts activity, there is no science, technology, engineering, or math. In my view, it is no more optional than funding roads and bridges. And the taxpayer doesn’t need to “use” the arts any more than he or she needs to use every road or bridge or park supported by their taxes. The arts are equally integral to place, and can’t—shouldn’t—be separated from it.

  • Brooks Kelley

    Be careful of what you wish for. If you are following the Detroit bankruptcy, you will realize that one of the big debates right now is whether the art work for the Detroit Institute of Arts should be sold to pay off the creditors. It turns out that a lot of the art work belongs to the City of Detroit due to the level of support that came from the public sector and the way evdrything is owned. It turns out that the DIA, the nonprofit, does not own the artwork. A few donors had the stipulation in their donations that if the artwork was sold it would have to go to other museums but most did not worry about it or think about the possibility that the City of Detroit could one day face bankruptcy. The other side of the equation is that the regional governments voted in a millage to support the arts but if the art work is disposed of that support also may be pulled. Probably big problem is that the system was not set up so that the non-profit owned the artwork.

  • lisa robb

    This is a refreshing perspective and makes for strong casemaking for investments of public funds in arts, culture and heritage activities as a compelling part of a good governance portfolio.
    Cultural Data Project jobs data for the 2,008 organizations with NYS reports on file is 303,000 jobs are associated with these organizations – not ancillary jobs but direct employment.
    Buffalo , NY certainly has supported the sector as part of a smart growth strategy and a community vitality indicator. This does not even touch the for profit creative economy piece of the pie. Thanks Paul.

  • Beth

    This is not a new thing, the DIA has been publicly owned since 1919. City-funded acquisitions essentially stopped with the Great Depression, and entirely halted in 1953. Yes, those works purchased with city funds before that time are the most “vulnerable” to possible sale, but the DIA is and has been in a unique situation even before the city declared bankruptcy. Compared to other arts institutions in major cities, the DIA is under-endowed regardless of who owns the art. Does the bankruptcy hurt? Probably. Is the taxpayer base of the city inadequate to support the institution? Almost certainly. But the DIA is definitely not a representative case to hold up against the argument presented in this article.

  • Andi

    Perhaps the cultural institions would find tax payers more amenable to paying for them, if the museums, galleries and orchestras, ect were more amenable to adults. I am tired of being viewed as a wallet for institutions that really have gone out of their way to tell me I am not welcome unless I am handing them money, merely because I am over 18 and single.
    While single members of any of them museums I have ever been a member of are charged significantly more than families per person we gear next to nothing in programming that is not geared towards fundraising.yet there are children’s programs galore even at the so called community days that museums here offer once a season, I pay the$10 fee to get in…the same $10 that my sister can take her two children for..and forget my participation ….I am expected to step aside and let the families go first, and if there are left overs I might be able to participate from their leavings . Time and time again I am asked to help fund these same institutions ~~~why would I want to fund something that offers me nothing but an. Opportunity to fund programming that I am not welcome at? Cultural institutions need to stop whining about budget shortfalls and how they need money and start cultivating relationships with the people who will be paying the bills and overwhelmingly taxpayers are adults.

    I’ll continue voting against funding for institutions that only view me as a wallet.