- The Washington Times - Friday, February 27, 2009

When times are tough, it’s always both a delicate and a difficult task to convince lawmakers that the arts are worth continued support and funding.

We are in such a period. There has been a great deal of important debate as to what should and should not be in the stimulus package. The final bill signed recently by President Obama retained the $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts. But the threats to programs that bring the arts to communities are always there; it doesn’t take a lot of bad economic news before the voices calling to slash already minuscule budgets are heard.

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Every once in awhile, someone comes along who just makes me want to throw up my hands as I contemplate throwing in the towel. At the moment, that person is Rep. Jack Kingston, Georgia Republican. He’s the congressman who was quoted recently as saying, “I just think 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.”

Blaming the “elite” is a tired tactic. If I take Mr. Kingston at his word, it’s as if he is saying the economic contributions of certain constituents of his do not matter — or don’t matter as much as others.

Yet, according to Americans for the Arts, Mr. Kingston’s congressional district last year had 778 arts-related businesses that employed 2,663 people. Among the “creative industries” that have a home in Mr. Kingston’s district are museums; historical societies; performing-arts venues; photography projects; arts councils; schools; and organizations centered on film, radio and television.

Are all those people in his district who work — professionally or as volunteers — in the fields of painting, dance, photography, singing, writing, filmmaking, pottery, poetry writing, computer design, art, architecture, history, acting, stage design and crafts part of the elite?

Far from wanting to fan the flames of the culture wars, I am writing this as a plea to lawmakers such as Mr. Kingston to remember that those who work in the arts contribute much to the economy as well as society. We will all benefit if there is money for road builders AND art teachers, technology AND theater, environmental projects AND music lessons. Getting the economy back on track is going to take time, money, investment, patience and practicality, among other things. Dignifying the work of those in the arts should not be left out.

This past week at the Academy Awards, Penelope Cruz won an Oscar for best supporting actress for her work in the film “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.” In an eloquent speech, she thanked the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences:

“I grew up in a place … where this was not a very realistic dream. On the night of the Academy Awards … I stayed up to watch the show. This ceremony was a moment of unity for the world because art, in any form, is and has been and will always be our universal language.

“And we should do everything we can, everything we can, to ensure its survival.”

Very well said, Ms. Cruz.

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