Impact on the Arts - An Expert View

Eleanor Oakley

This week's guest blogger is Eleanor H. Oakley, the President/CEO of United Arts Council of Raleigh and Wake County.

The idea that we may have to move forward without the NEA in the nonprofit arts industry is at once depressing and motivating.  Depressing because the NEA has worked admirably for decades to extend the reach of arts programming to all Americans. Motivating because those of us who work in this arena have to step our efforts once more to raise more friends and funds, increase awareness in our communities of the value of arts, and educate everyone about the definitions alive in the conversation.

In my office, we are currently using a $20,000 NEA grant to fund our annual Arts Integration Institute, in which about 60 Wake County elementary school teachers participate in a one-week intensive training program on how to use the arts to teach all subjects across the curriculum.

The teachers leave with integrated lesson plans that help them engage their young students in active learning, followed months later by a review and coaching conversation with the Institute leader as the teachers use the new techniques in their actual classrooms.  Teacher responses to this training have been highly enthusiastic.  A worthwhile use of NEA dollars?  We think so, definitely.

Viewing tax dollars spent on the arts as some sort of subsidy for private entertainment is mostly based on antiquated notions of what art is and sometimes on the simple ignorance of viewing art as a product.

In a county commission meeting many years ago during another assault on arts funding, I heard a perfectly well intentioned citizen avidly oppose county funding for the arts by saying in protest, “They are just pictures on a wall!”  Because when someone said “art” to him, he heard “visual art hanging in a museum”—and actually thought that what was being debated.

We should never stop explaining how the arts are important for “ordinary” Americans or cease reminding our civic leaders that the arts have a large economic and community impact. These things are simultaneously true and significant.  We must continually broadcast how inter-related the arts are to everyday life and what we lose when we can no longer support artists and their work. Otherwise, art remains distressingly apart from the society it reflects.

When I speak of “art,” I mean theatre, dance, music, literature and visual art—and all that is contained in these.  Young children learning music, a teacher using movement to teach a physics lesson, veterans recovering from war-time brain injuries creating visual art to break through their silences—the list and its breadth is endless.

The nonprofit arts industry genuinely needs tax-based support for maintenance and growth.  Tax-based revenue is rarely the majority of a nonprofit art group’s revenue, nor should it be.  But it helps mightily and endorses what is being done well artistically. Studies have shown in detail the catalytic value of tax-based dollars in obtaining private support dollars.

Individuals enjoying a performance, concert, exhibit or festival may think they are paying for everything through ticket sales, but that is never the case.  Presenters of festivals and exhibits must find large sponsorship dollars to offer them free to attendees; tax-based dollars have a role to play there. For ticketed events, only about 40 percent of total expenses is covered by ticket revenue.  The public often assumes that it is a simple matter of selling enough tickets at the correct price to break even or make a profit. The truth is that the public is unlikely to spend that real-cost amount on a ticket.

Which brings us to why have these things if we cannot afford them through ticket sales?  Because they uniquely reflect the best of our efforts, our thoughts, our feelings as human beings.  No art form should be lost because it cannot be saved through purely market forces.  Calmer and better informed heads should prevail in the conversation about tax-based support for the arts.

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