To fix the economy, fund the arts

By Christian Clansky

To a skeptic, Americans for the Arts President and CEO Bob Lynch’s message that the arts are an essential part of economic recovery might seem easy to dismiss. But to hear Bob’s argument is to have an eye-opening repositioning of perspective with which even the most hardened skeptic would have trouble disagreeing.

untitledAs he presented in Washington Grantmakers’ Thought Leaders installment, the argument hinges on a basic premise – the arts are everywhere, especially where most people don’t notice them as such.  On an epic scale, for example, take the Parthenon in Athens – a beautifully crafted monument that at its inception was criticized as being, “a waste of tax and private money.”   That “waste,” Lynch points out, produced theater as we know it, and far more importantly, democracy.

He continued on to discuss how fake military vehicles were constructed during WWII to distract the Germans as the real Allies advanced. This functional art project is credited for saving at least 10,000 lives while advancing war efforts.

On a contemporary plane, Lynch quoted Al Gore saying of An Inconvenient Truth, “It took art to make citizens and leaders alike pay attention.” Gore’s movie is helping to create the green economy that will create a great many jobs.

He pointed to a New York City program where cab drivers decorate the tops of their cars, in turn creating a more inviting environment that attracts more tourism. This drives revenue into the city.

There are countless examples like these, and the notion that the arts stimulate the economy in creative and often unrecognized ways is undeniable.  So is the fact that as a contained industry, arts organizations and their audiences generate $166.2 billion in annual economic activity, as well as $29.6 billion in federal, state, and local tax revenue. This industry represents the equivalent of 5.7 million full-time jobs.

And the economic argument doesn’t do justice to the statistics about the arts improving academic achievement, community development, and even health outcomes.

While the economy forces cautious grantmaking, it is of paramount importance for arts funding to continue. As Bob says, “The arts are not part of the problem. They are part of the solution.”


Sponsored by WG’s Arts and Humanities Working Group, Bob Lynch’s talk was the second in Washington Grantmakers’ Thought Leaders series. This series is an opportunity for Working Groups and Funding Collaboratives to bring in high-level, provocative speakers to talk about the group’s priority in an expansive way and discuss how a specific group’s priority is related to and connected with other issues that funders care about.

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