An “Inartful” Solution To PA’s Budget Impasse

September 22, 2009

Given that I rightly dump on the Inquirer and Daily News on a regular basis, it would be unfair of me not to give either paper credit when they do really good work. And that is true of Karen Heller’s column today (the subject is the last-minute deal to slap “an 8 percent surcharge on tickets and membership at arts and cultural organizations in Philadelphia, 6 percent elsewhere, at a time when endowments are down, giving is down, and attendance is down,” as Heller tells us)…

“I don’t know what Gov. Rendell and the leaders of the legislature were thinking,” Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance president Peggy Amsterdam said before launching a “Fight the Arts Tax” movement at last night’s fall meeting. “The really sad thing is we try to make cultural experiences accessible and affordable to everyone. This is going to make it harder.” Increased ticket prices, she argued, will drive away even more patrons already hit by the recession.

Of the alliance’s 390 member institutions, 40 percent are suffering deficits, including the Philadelphia Orchestra, with shortfalls of $3.3 million last fiscal year and a projected $7.5 million this year. It’s like drawing blood from an anemic. Amsterdam says projecting $100 million in annual tax revenues is pure folly: “Our estimates are nowhere near that – maybe $20 million statewide.”

Arts administrators complain there are no details on how much will be redirected or where. What’s to prevent Republican lawmakers from taking Philadelphia Museum of Art revenues and shipping them, say, to the Enchanted Woodlins chainsaw carvings of Elk County?

“If this had been proposed totally across the board on all forms of entertainment, you might say, ‘This stinks. It adds to our challenges, but these are really difficult times and we’re all doing our share,’ ” said Cultural Alliance chairman Hal Real. “But it’s not across the board. And it’s symptomatic of how undervalued the arts are in our culture.”

“Not across the board” indeed: as Heller points out, anyone who wants to pony up some dough to ogle Megan Fox in “Jennifer’s Body” as she cavorts with and then subsequently attacks her boyfriends (apparently she’s a vampire also – I only know about the flick from the commercial that seems to be on everywhere) is free to do so without paying the 8 percent tax on top of the ticket price.

And that also goes for anyone who wants to get drunk at a tailgate party and watch the Philadelphia Eagles’ defense get carved up by a reasonably competent NFL quarterback again (to say nothing of watching slapstick special teams play), as Drew Brees of New Orleans did last Sunday (I’ll admit that Brees is a lot better than “reasonably competent,” though). Also, in the matter of football, don’t you worry, all of you egomaniacs driving around in your Hummers, Jettas and Lexus SUVs with your lion’s paw decals and bumper stickers saying, “If God Isn’t A Penn State Fan, Why Did He Make The Sky Blue And White?”…it looks like your precious Nittany Lions weren’t affected either.

And you want to know who else wasn’t affected by the 8 percent arts sales tax? The warmongering Pattison Avenue Potentate himself, Ed Snider, that’s who. Don’t worry, you’ll still be able to watch Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and the rest of the Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins skate circles around the orange-and-black at the same cost you would have paid otherwise, to say nothing of watching the Sixers get eaten alive by other teams’ big men in the paint.

(By the way, to the Eagles’ credit, I should point out that owner Jeffrey Lurie and Snider are polar opposites politically; the Eagles are big contributors to the Democratic Party.)

Yes, I’m more than a little pissed about this, partly because, as Heller points out, it doesn’t make economic sense. However, the tax does appease the Republican Party for the purposes of doing the deal, which of course is what this is all about.

And with that in mind, this tells us the following…

The philosophical divide between those who see the arts as frivolous and those who see its value is as old as the nation.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the federal Works Progress Administration paid thousands of unemployed artists to write regional guidebooks, produce plays and organize symphony orchestras. The work of more than 5,000 artists can still be seen today in murals commissioned for schools, post offices and other government buildings.

President Obama has not proposed such a program but supports increased arts funding. Most Republicans oppose spending tax dollars on aesthetics.

“America is a practical nation that comes from very practical roots,” says Robert Lynch of the advocacy group Americans for the Arts. “That practicality … is part of what we’ve had to overcome.”

It was on display in the recent debate in Congress over the economic stimulus package.

The House of Representatives version included $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts to help non-profit arts organizations avoid closing or laying off workers, but the Senate version left it out. The final bill restored the money for the NEA.

“Putting people to work is more important than putting more art on the wall of some New York City gallery frequented by the elite art community,” said Republican Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia during the debate.

No word on whether or not Kingston ever found his flag lapel pin, by the way.

But on top of that, anyone who thinks arts spending doesn’t make a positive economic impact (like Kingston) is just plan wrong (I linked to this in a prior post, but it bears repeating)…

In Chicago, nonprofit arts and cultural organizations generate $1.09 billion in revenue, support 30,134 jobs, and deliver over $103 million in tax revenue to local and state government, according to the Illinois Arts Alliance. In Illinois, 23,643 creative enterprises employ 132,882 people, according to Americans for the Arts.

And as noted here…

The arts are a prime vehicle for job creation and a valued economic distribution mechanism. The country’s more than 4,000 local and state arts agencies have nearly 50 years of proven history as good stewards of our tax dollars and can ensure speedy disbursement to local projects, along with the excellent direct distribution track record of the National Endowment for the Arts itself. The arts are essential to the health and vitality of our communities.”

NEA funds, on average, leverage $7 in additional support through local, state, and private donations, for every one dollar in federal support. Fifty million in economic stimulus will leverage $350 million of investment.

And returning to Heller, she concludes with this…

If you were a deeply cynical sort of person, even someone with a fleeting knowledge of the sour feelings Republicans have for Philadelphia and Rendell, you might think this latest culture tax was a spirited flamenco dance atop the city’s fiscal woes.

In high heels, for good measure (to twist the old saying a bit, I guess PA’s Harrisburg poobahs don’t know much about spending money efficiently, but they know what they like…or don’t like in this case).

Peddling NEA Nonsense With The “Moonie Times”

September 15, 2009

nea_logoWow, the Washington Times must be onto something in this editorial today (titled “NEA Scandal Time Line”)…

Nov. 10, 2008: A former National Endowment for the Arts chief is named to the Obama transition team. Bill Ivey, NEA head under Bill Clinton, will handle arts and cultural issues in the transition.

Jan. 13, 2009: Arts groups lobby the Obama transition team for stimulus money. As part of a larger group, Americans for the Arts, the Literary Network and Theatre Communications Group propose to the transition team that more than $1 billion be funneled through the NEA as part of the stimulus plan. All three would later endorse the Obama administration’s health care initiative. Robert L. Lynch, head of Americans for the Arts, meets twice with transition officials.

Late January: An Obama transition official proposes linking NEA grantees to the White House. “I worked hard to try to forge a link between the arts agencies and mainstream policy in the West Wing of the White House. I know that there is serious consideration being given to placing an arts-and-culture portfolio within the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Engagement in the Domestic Policy Council. I worked hard to get that done and I think that will happen,” says former NEA chief Bill Ivey.

So…am I to understand that the head of the NEA under President Clinton, who also served as a member of the Obama transition team, lobbied for more than $1 billion of stimulus funding, and then “worked hard to try to forge a link between the arts agencies and mainstream policy in the West Wing of the White House”? And did I mention that he also worked for Bill Clinton?


OK, OK, I’m messing around a bit here. The editorial calls it a “scandal” that, allegedly through the influence of that dastardly NEA, arts groups supported the Obama administration on health care reform.

And as far as the editorial is concerned, that’s pretty much it.

Uh huh.

Well, I think what we have here is a case of wingnut media trying to work that teabaggin’ “base” into a lather over an alleged dustup with one of the right’s favorite targets (more on that in a minute).

And besides, if the NEA is really “in cahoots” as they say with the Obama Administration, then they have a funny way of showing it; as noted here, they oppose the $4.35 billion “Race to the Top” program from Obama partly because it uses test scores for evaluating teachers and calls for an increase in the number of charter schools (kind of hard for me to work up opposition to that, as long as it’s balanced with funding for more teachers and better salaries – as far as I’m concerned, if we really paid people what they were worth in this country, teachers would make more money than anyone else).

Note: Sorry the Education Week link isn’t cooperating…

But more to the point, here is a list of “stim” grants to the NEA (including such “subversive” organizations as the Albany Symphony Orchestra, the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville, Inc., and the Minneapolis Society of Fine Arts).

And as noted here in a March story, the NEA puts people to work and keeps them in their jobs, and as a result…

The NEA says it receives far more requests than it is able to fund. During a grant cycle ended Oct. 31, 2008, one category—Access to Artistic Excellence—received more than 1,300 applications requesting $73.5 million. Of those requests, only 886 organizations received a total of just $20.3 million in funding.

“The same will happen with the stimulus fund program,” said a representative from the NEA Office of Communications. “It is very rare that an application is funded at the full amount requested.”

In Chicago, nonprofit arts and cultural organizations generate $1.09 billion in revenue, support 30,134 jobs, and deliver over $103 million in tax revenue to local and state government, according to the Illinois Arts Alliance. In Illinois, 23,643 creative enterprises employ 132,882 people, according to Americans for the Arts.

At the same time, approximately 129,000 artists were unemployed in the United States in the fourth quarter of 2008, a jump of 50,000, or 63 percent from 2007, according to NEA research.

While the artist unemployment rate is comparable to the 8.1 percent unemployment rate for the U.S. workforce in general, the unemployment rate among artists has risen more rapidly. Artist unemployment grew by 2.4 percentage points between the fourth quarters of 2007 and 2008, while unemployment rates among professional workers and the general population grew by only 1.0 and 1.9 percentage points, respectively.

But as far as the NEA being a “target,” screeching from The Heritage Foundation and other conservative outlets is typical; this 1997 post tells us, with the requisite harrumphing, of an NEA-funded project called “Ten Cents a Dance,” a three-vignette video in which “two women awkwardly discuss their mutual attraction.” It “depicts anonymous bathroom sex between two men” and includes an “ironic episode of heterosexual phone sex” (funny coming from a source sympathetic to the political party of Larry Craig).

Also, I would argue that Baby Newton Leroy Gingrich’s attack on the NEA when he was former House Speaker was one of the reasons why he was removed from power – I believe people in this country, for the most part, have enough good sense to see the merit of public funding of the NEA (and, indirectly, public television).

And finally, this Fix Noise epistle tells us the following…

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, he said.”These sorts of programs (including the NEA of course) really do need to be funded by the patrons that go to the performances — not by the federal government.”

Which begs the question, who exactly do you think “the government” is?

Update 9/17/09: David Mastio, Senior Editor for Online Opinion of The Washington Times, replied today and told me the following…

“The NEA we were writing about and the NEA in the following paragraph are not the same NEA. Not that I am one to call the kettle black, cause I have written out the name of the teacher/NEA instead of the Art/NEA and then had to go back and fix it.”

I appreciate his response, but I reread the editorial and couldn’t find any reference to the NEA as the National Education Association. If I missed the reference and anyone else finds it, feel free to let me know.

Update 9/28/09: Sure sounds like the National Endowment for the Arts to me based on this.

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