Friday, January 23, 2009

Arts Are Important for the Obama Administration

This ran in the KC Star Jan. 21, in the special Obama section. My profound thanks to David Fenza for vital help with this—though all infelicitous phrasings are my own.

When asked to write about the election of Barack Hussein Obama, I meant to discuss my personal pride in being a Kansan like Obama’s mother and grandparents. Then I realized that as Kansas poet laureate, I have a greater responsibility to discuss the importance of poetry and the arts in general.

I was delighted that Obama included poet Elizabeth Alexander in his inaugural ceremony. This is a potent symbol. Also, he has a position paper that supports arts education, an artist corps, increased funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, cultural diplomacy, health care for artists and tax fairness for artists. This shows that the 44th president is aware that the arts enhance our public lives. He must be aware of the economic benefits of supporting the arts.

Every mayor knows that if you want to revitalize a downtown neighborhood, you put a pod of artistic activity there to help: theaters and galleries, and then the restaurants follow, and then sometimes new dwellings. I have seen this happen in Lawrence, Salina, Wichita and other Kansas towns.

A single fellowship can make a great difference. The NEA’s investment of a $7,000 in novelist Bobbie Ann Mason was one of the most effective uses of federal money ever. With her fellowship, she wrote a novel called In Country, which became a best-seller. The movie version, with Bruce Willis, was filmed in Mayfield, Ky., and the arrival of the crew brought millions of dollars to the town and the state’s economy. The movie was its own economic success, as well as a moving portrait of challenges that faced American families with veterans of the Vietnam War.
A $7,000 federal investment of an NEA literary fellowship led to hundreds of millions of dollars of commerce, countless jobs, and literary and cinematic tributes to our veterans and their families.

This illustrates how the arts are, unexpectedly, big business. Research by Americans for the Arts indicates that arts and culture organizations generate $166.2 billion every year, plus tax income of almost $30 billion.

In Salina, Kansas, population 45,676, nonprofit arts organizations generated almost $24 million for their organization and event-related expenditures. This delivered more than $2 million in local and state tax revenues, according to Americans for the Arts.

Please help President Obama in his efforts to support the arts. Please understand that national economic well-being, as well as personal well-being, is at stake.