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An artful use of stimulus dollars?

An artful use of stimulus dollars?

March 23, 2010
March 23, 2010

More than $470,000 in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (aka the stimulus plan) funds have found their way to Idaho arts groups. This money came from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and went either directly to groups like the Boise Contemporary Theater, the Idaho Shakespeare Festival and the Log Cabin Literary Center, or was distributed to groups statewide through the Idaho Commission on the Arts.

All the State’s a Stage

According to records obtained by the Idaho Freedom Foundation, $254,200 was distributed to 44 Idaho arts groups by the Arts Commission. The award description said the money was “To support arts projects and activities which preserve jobs in the nonprofit arts sector threatened by declines in philanthropic and other support during the current economic downturn.” Director Michael Faison said the recipients reported back that the stimulus money has “created or saved” 14 full-time jobs, 18 part-time jobs, and 12 contract positions. According to the website recovery.gov, that equates to 22.5 full-time equivalent (FTE) jobs.

Where did the dollars go?

The Nampa Civic Center used its $4,897 dollar grant to being New York-based dance troupe “Tap Kids” to town for two performances on January 28th. The first performance was for middle school students and the second was for a general audience. It was an opportunity for folks in Nampa to see art they ordinarily wouldn’t, said Civic Center Director Marie Baker. “These are professionals. We like to bring something to the community that not only benefits the community in terms of a genre that is not readily accessible in a professional way, but also introduces the students to something they wouldn’t normally see as well.” Baker said the troupe demonstrated their moves for the school crowd, and then talked with the students about what it takes to be a professional dancer."

Helena Peterson, Managing Director of the Boise Contemporary Theater, said her group used the grant money to fund one full-time staff position, Patron Services Director, who handles ticketing, reservations, donations, etc. “It was an existing position that had to go away because of the economy. And so we were able to reinstate that position.” Two actors were also hired for last fall’s production of “The Pavilion”.

Why fund the arts with tax dollars?

When the Obama Administration was pushing the stimulus plan through Congress last year, we heard a lot about “shovel ready” infrastructure jobs, conjuring up images of Great Depression-era projects like the Hoover Dam. But we heard little to nothing about stimulus money going to help arts groups. Are acting and dancing jobs what was envisioned when Congress passed the stimulus plan in February of 2009?

Peterson says it behooves us to fund the arts. “The arts play an important part in our community. When we are in such financial straits, often people turn to the arts for relief; to laugh, to cry, to forget their troubles, and if there was nothing like our organization, or other organizations that received funding and support, I think it would be very sad times indeed.”

According to Baker, creative thinking is needed now more than ever in the business world, and the arts help to fuel creative thinking. “It’s important to understand that the creative process is what’s going to continue make us a great country. I think that’s where the arts play into it. What the arts do, besides telling a story, is to allow people to stretch their imagination to places they would never go. And that’s exactly what we need right now.”

Congressional reaction

The members of Idaho’s congressional delegation, all of whom voted against the stimulus bill, aren’t so quick to agree. Susan Wheeler, Communications Director for Senator Mike Crapo (R-ID), says there are a lot of questions about how stimulus funds have been used; not just for the arts, but overall. “Everyday there are more stories emerging about questionable spending decisions, phantom job creation, loose reporting by the administration and by the recipients on the funds that have been spent so far.”

Representative Walt Minnick (D-1st District) also thinks the stimulus spending has been mishandled. “Regardless of how you feel about particular programs, most Idahoans agree that stimulus should have been more strategic, which is why I voted against it,” he said.

His House counterpart, Representative Mike Simpson (R-2nd District), agreed. “The stimulus bill was meant to create jobs by providing funding for shovel-ready projects, not plus up Members’ favorite programs and pet projects,” said Simpson. “This funding should have gone through the regular appropriations process-it did not belong in a stimulus bill.”

Senator Jim Risch (R-ID) believes not only does stimulus spending on the arts and other programs not stimulate the economy, it’s placing it in jeopardy. “I voted against the stimulus bill because it was a giant spending package of pet projects that would do little to create jobs. All of this money has to be borrowed and we are creating such a serious debt problem that the very financial viability of our country is at risk.”

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