Arts Advocacy Day

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Some famous names — Josh Groban, Linda Ronstandt, Wynton Marsalis — are trooping up to Capitol Hill this morning to testify before a House appropriations subcommittee on the usefulness of the arts and arts education. Lest anyone miss the utilitarian point, the hearing is being headlined as “The Arts = Jobs”.

    All of this is part of an annual lobbying blitz called Arts Advocacy Day. It’s co-organized by Americans for the Arts, the Congressional Arts Caucus and various arts groups around the country, many of which are flooding the zone in D.C. this week, sending members to corner their congress persons and plead the case that the arts are not only good for you, but good for the economy. Judging from last month’s dismal debate over whether to include money for the arts in the stimulus package, many members of congress are unaware that this is true.

    For me, the single most striking takeaway from the morning’s testimony, which I got an early look at, is this from Robert L. Lynch, president/CEO of Americans for the Arts.

    Thirty years ago, the NEA received a modest 12 cents per $100 of non-military discretionary spending. Today that is just 3 cents per $100. If the NEA had simply maintained its 1979 percentage of discretionary funding, its 2008 budget would have been $613 million.

    Some background. The NEA budget peaked in 1992 at $175 million. But three years later, after Newt Gingrich and his House Republican majority came to town, the budget was slashed by 39%, to $99.5 million. Half the agency staff got laid off. All of this of course was delayed fallout from the Robert Mapplethorpe/Karen Finley/Jesse Helms crisis of the late ’80s/early 90s. In 1997 the House voted to eliminate the NEA altogether, an idea that was slapped down in the Senate.

    Things started to calm down under Bill Clinton’s second NEA Chairman William J. Ivey and the Bush-era Chairman Dana Gioia. The last Bush White House budget was $144.7 in ’08, which was more than $20 million above what the agency got in 2007. The 2009 NEA budget request by the Obama White House is $155 million, an increase of only $10 million — but that would be on top of the $50 million the NEA got in the stimulus bill.

    The hearings are supposed to take place between 10:30 a.m. and noon today. Once they get underway you can link to a live webcast here.

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