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Budget cuts & curbing collective imagination

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POSTED January 1, 2013 9:57 p.m.

It’s not just about the bird.

When Mitt Romney declared in the first presidential debate that if he were elected he would cut funding for Big Bird, he really meant he’d take the knife to the whole kit and kaboodle. His policy platform called for the total elimination of federal spending on the arts and humanities, including for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

That might not send Big Bird to the slaughterhouse. While NPR and PBS count on the Corporation for Public Broadcasting for some of their funding, most of the money those public broadcasters rely on comes from individual and corporate donations.

Federal funding for the arts and humanities, however, is essential to a vibrant society. It helps Americans tell our stories and understand our neighbors — through art, documentary film, educational television, and the books that fill our public libraries.

Now, with a budget-balancing deal in the works, we’re told that “everything is on the table” for potential elimination. These agencies are perennial targets, even though they receive less than $1 billion in public funds, just a tiny fraction of the federal government’s $3.6 trillion in annual expenditures.

The National Endowment for the Arts is a particularly popular target for conservatives.

Maybe you’re wondering why we taxpayers should fund the arts, anyway.

“When poetry lays its hand on our shoulder we are, to an almost physical degree, touched and moved,” the late poet and essayist Adrienne Rich wrote. “The imagination’s roads open before us, giving the lie to that brute dictum, ‘There is no alternative.’”

Instead of locking us into hardened positions, as political rhetoric too often does, a poem or other work of art can open our minds to a new way of seeing, to another person’s experience, or to an idea we might never have thought possible.

Small and medium-sized arts organizations are critical to the development of the poets and other artists who are stretching our imaginations in these ways. These groups nurture and support emerging artists and writers. They provide platforms for new works. They bring artists and young people together in our schools and community centers. They present artwork that may be wild and challenging and exploratory, helping us tell our varied American stories, helping us understand our complex history.

It is these small and medium-sized groups that benefit most from public dollars. Unlike large museums, ballet companies, and opera extravaganzas, they typically lack access to major donors who can give multi-million dollar donations. A grant of $25,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts can make a tremendous difference in the ability of these groups to carry out the programs that enrich our lives every day.

Rocco Landesman, who heads the endowment, recently announced his resignation. Its next leader should believe fiercely in the centrality of small and mid-sized organizations to our cultural ecosystem and would be their articulate and visionary advocate in the public realm.

As President Barack Obama and Congress negotiate a budget deal, I hope they heed First Lady, Michelle Obama. “The arts are not just a nice thing to have or to do if there is free time or if one can afford it,” she said at the opening of a new wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Rather, painting and poetry, music and fashion, design and dialogue, they all define who we are as a people and provide an account of our history for the next generation.”

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