The Dividends of Art

We Can’t Afford to Cut the NEA and NEH

Art doesn’t maintain. It gives back. In surprisingly quantifiable ways.

In my Fight to Keep Creativity Alive workshops, for years now, I’ve taught about the psychology of creativity. This is what is profound and life-changing: The science behind creativity is that when we are creating (even those of us who aren't "artsy"), we feel that we are living more fully. (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi) 75% of people don’t feel that they are living up to their creative potential at the same time that 70% of employees do not feel engaged at work. There’s a profound link to those two statistics. That means over 185 million adults in the United States do not feel that they’re living up to their creative potential.

What if we were living up to our creative potential? What if we were living more fully? Creativity leads to employee engagement, imagination, innovation, higher productivity, and emotional investment at work (Entrepreneur Magazine). If one person creates and feels more full, more alive and productive, what about a whole community? A whole city? A whole nation? What would that look like? What good could be achieved? What could be built? What could we overcome?

And I’m not talking about philosophical or esoteric feel-good ways. I’m talking real change. Medellin, Colombia was once the most dangerous neighborhood on the planet. Warring drug lords tore the country apart, and the worst of the worst was Medellin. The community tried a new tactic for reducing crime: art. The local government sent art supplies to at-risk youth for a creative outlet and local businesses and schools were soon to follow. “They wanted to add a renewed sense of identity – and a bit of color – to the daily lives of the community by commissioning local artists, and their idea worked.” The crime rate has markedly dropped (from #1 in the world to #49) and Medellin is becoming a wildly artistic place with heightened tourism and an optimism that hasn't been felt in decades. The peacock photo above is an example of the incredible art, by Chotas. “Taking people off of the streets and reducing violence is a large task, but giving people the resources to do art is a tool that helps to make the process a little easier,” says a Colombian street artist Perro Graff in an interview with Kayla Stewart,

There are many organizations who harness the redemptive power of art. In Richmond, VA, Arts in the Alley goes to the worst alleys and over a weekend cleans, restores, and brings in muralists to decrepit alleys. Then on Sunday they bring in music to further restore and connect the community. The effort brings ownership, creativity and a sense of hope and renewal. And you know what? The pimps, the drug dealers, and the darkness don’t return. Art is a form of light. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.”

If art is redemptive and life-giving, if it is so important to who we are, why do we always cut art first?

That is why destroying the NEA and the NEH is not a good idea. In fact, in this time of division, no matter what “side” you’re on politically, we cannot deny that the United States is a deeply divided nation. I urge you to consider art’s importance in overcoming this division. It’s a form of light; it builds instead of tears down, it brings hope and ownership, it brings healing.

We cannot afford to lose those dividends.

Need some empirical proof? Here’s the crazy bottom line. According to Fortune, the NEA and NEH make up only .002% of federal discretionary spending. Yet, the Bureau of Economic Analysis found that arts and cultural production contributed more than $704 billion to the US economy. Over 700 billion! This accounts for 4.2% of the US GDP and – get this – is greater than the contributions of the construction, transportation and warehousing industries. Not only will we lose those economic dividends from the money infused into the arts (and let’s not forget that 40% of what the NEA does takes place in high-poverty neighborhoods), but what will that stand for? What will this time period be remembered for? Is the relatively small investment in art really a waste? The Trump team wants to achieve a reduction in budgetary spending by “targeting waste.” Like the NEA and NEH. Of all the things we can invest in, art doesn’t even just maintain. It gives back.

Call me crazy, but the cost of .002% of the budget investment that helps add more than $704 billion to the economy… is not a waste. It sounds like a wise investment.

See? Dividends.

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