Artists: No Dollars, Just Sense, Please

That Erickson versus Gillis fiasco certainly has generated a lot of talk, none more heated than from artists, and understandably so. I’ve read much of what was said, including many impassioned pleas that point towards what is a false logic: economical impacts or footprints.
Don’t get me wrong, I was livid upon seeing that video, but I do think that artists have to modify their point of view and attack this from a different angle. Getting right down to pure math, any attempts to rationalize artistic and cultural grants with economics is suicide; it’s a no win situation no matter how one phrases his arguments, the numbers speak. And that's why right-wing conservative asses want to see cuts in the arts and cultural programs. 

The view that an $8 billion investment in the arts and cultural programs was able to generate $85 billion is looking at this all wrong, and using this as an argument for the arts is, in a way, a form of self-delusion, as this calculation converts expenditures to revenues, adding what is in reality costs as returns on returns, while also not taking into account any opportunity-costs and missed ROI’s. The Conference Board numbers and calculations are highly debated by impartial economists precisely for the abated reality they present if improperly viewed. Economic Impact is merely the sum of all the revenues that were generated by a given activity; this calculation DOES NOT consider the source of any of the funds, and for such aspects as indirect and induced spending, these revenue flows would still exist without many subsidized activities—for example, people still have to eat and drink—the main difference being that these initial funds wouldn’t originate out of tax dollars for which taxes are being re-charged on tax dollars; this is highly circular spending, not wholly generative. Higher revenues would actually be generated (rather than re-distributed) out of private funds (one of the arguments for privatising the arts, so careful, those same numbers are actually playing against the very argument that's being used), especially since the initial seed isn’t an expenditure (yet the impassioned pleas I've read are falsely choosing to see these as actual revenues). Further, an artist without funding would otherwise be employed within the private sector and thus contributing much more to the pure dollar economic wealth of a nation than by trickling down public funds.
Sure, a subsidized troupe that pays rent to occupy a subsidized theatre with subsidized utility bills is generating revenue, but those are all in fact costs, made more evident when contrasted with what the same space generates if that theatre is torn down and high-priced, heavily taxed condos are built in its stead...

Furthermore, that $85 billion also includes whatever x-dollar amount is spent on, let's say, things like beers at events. Besides the fact that there is no real way of dealing with precise or actual numbers, just speculations and projections, well, reality is, people spend more money on beers and food and paraphernalia at major sporting events than at most cultural events, so by that logic alone, if we were to break down the many areas that comprise that economic impact figure, we're actually looking at a reduced return and loss by holding these types of artistic or cultural events rather than sporting ones... or most privately funded popular event for that matter.   

My point: if artists start dragging in numbers and want to use intangible economic arguments to justify funding, then they also have to accept that that’s precisely what the government is doing—but by using very tangible indices, ratios and calculations—and none more so than the Tories. This is in fact the attitude that justifies all the cuts in the arts and cultural funds, and in a dead-on fight, the really real reality is that it’s a losing battle for all artists... and society, too.  

Both sides have to be honest, however. Wealthy conservatives may call the arts a “waste” because they do not in fact generate as much as private sector areas, but truth is, the arts as a whole are not a deficit-creating activity. However small, there is a positive dollar return on those federal, provincial, and local investments.

Nonetheless, despite the impression you may have gotten up to this point, I firmly believe that we should protect funding for the arts and culture—even increase the pool—but I also believe that we need to be honest about the reasons why. We need to focus on the “wealth”, not the revenues. The proper outlook has nothing to do with price and dollars, but with genuine value, that intangible quality which cannot be measured directly, though it has clear, highly visible positive impacts. A society that fosters a rich and vibrant, creative and innovative culture benefits at all levels, and this, equally in the scientific and technological sectors. If anything, it is these long-term impacts that are primordial, not the immediate economic ones, as this actually warrants seeing this type of funding as a “waste”, a viewpoint that turns everything into dollar amounts and motivates a life I wouldn’t want to live, one where modes of production and material goods hold more value than any real celebration of humankind.
Balance is not only possible, it's also necessary.  

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© 2011, Pascal-Denis Lussier
Photo credit: Centre Georges Pompidou, France - Pascal-Denis Lussier. All rights reserved.


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