Pennies for the arts

editorial notebook

March 07, 2009|By Glenn McNatt

The state budget crunch hit the arts hard this year, especially in Baltimore, where four of the state's largest arts institutions are located.

Officials at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Walters Art Museum and Center Stage are struggling with a triple whammy of double-digit declines in endowment income, falling ticket sales and a 36 percent cut in funding for the state arts council, which supports arts groups across Maryland.

Gov. Martin O'Malley is allocating only about $10.5 million to the Maryland State Arts Council for fiscal 2010, down from his initial target of $16.5 million. The loss of $6 million in state support will mean a lot of pain for struggling arts organizations, but it's pennies compared to the state's general fund budget of $14.4 billion.

Still, in tough economic times, the arts have to vie against other needs that appear more pressing.

Should government cut programs for disabled adults, health care for poor children or unemployment benefits to people who have lost their jobs in order to support actors, dancers and musicians?

What about salaries for teachers, police and firefighters, or road and bridge repairs? Most people think these things are equally if not more important than what theaters, museums and symphony orchestras do.

Yet when America was in the throes of the Great Depression, and the country was reeling from a financial crisis even worse than the one we're facing today, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the first federal program to support the nation's arts and artists.

The Public Works of Art Project, founded in 1934, provided employment for thousands of artists whose works are the subject of a fascinating exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington. The project grew out of President Roosevelt's strong belief that art was essential to sustaining the country's spirit through extraordinarily difficult times and that the visual record of the era created by the nation's artists would far outlast the legacy of his economic policies.

Mr. Roosevelt knew he would be criticized for "wasteful" spending on "frills" such as the public murals, portraits, rural landscapes and images of city life produced in the thousands by the PWAP artists. But he never wavered in his commitment to the program: "Artists have to eat, too," he insisted.

Americans, he believed, deserved to see images of themselves struggling against the obstacles they faced, so that later they could take pride in having overcome them.

Nowadays, government tends to view the arts mainly in instrumental terms - as spurs to economic development or conduits for diplomacy and statecraft.

Over the past decade, for example, the arts have generated some $600 million a year in economic benefits to Maryland, comparable to the impact of the state's imperiled horse racing industry. Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department regularly organizes overseas exhibitions of American artists to celebrate the creativity and innovation that flow from our society's commitment to the free exchange of ideas.

But there's more to it than that. There's a lovely exhibition of illuminated manuscripts at the Walters this season, for instance, which many people have praised for the feeling of mystery inspired by the elaborate gold-leaf designs in the ancient Bibles on view. You don't quite see yourself in these images, but rather some place beyond yourself, an enlarged point of view that gives you another place to stand.

The mythical hero Atlas said he could lift the whole world if he had a place to stand. At the deepest level, that's what art does: It gives us another place to stand and inspiration to see beyond our immediate problems and momentary limitations so that we can grapple with the world.

President Roosevelt was a great leader for many reasons, but one of them surely was the genius he showed in recognizing Americans' need to have that broader point of view - in good times and in bad.

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