Last week, I had the opportunity to debate public funding for the arts with Fargo City Commissioner Tony Gehrig at the invitation of North Dakota State University’s Science and Religion Lunch Seminar series.
One thing the commissioner and I agree on is that spirited discourse is a good thing. We live in a diverse world, and the ability to be in disagreement and still have appreciation for each other is a trait that feels like it’s going the way of the dinosaurs. I respect that the commissioner and I can be so diametrically opposed to the topic of publicly funding the arts and still be cordial to each other.
That said, our differences are philosophically significant.
Commissioner Gehrig stated that if the private sector can or will fund something, the city has no business funding it. If the people can’t or won’t fund it, then the city needs to consider whether or not it should be funding it. His examples were of the police and road building and repair.
My consistent theme is that the arts receive 3/10th of one of the 55 mills that run the city of Fargo for a total just over $94 million. That $108,600 set aside for the arts is 0.12 percent of the total budget. What the arts accomplish in the community with that small amount of money, when combined with the cities of Moorhead and West Fargo funding, is phenomenal.
More than 30 organizations making art benefit directly from 70 percent of that total funding through the City Arts Partnership grants. The Arts Partnership amplifies the work of countless artists and arts organizations with the remaining funding. All in all, it’s an excellent use of taxpayer dollars.
But it’s about much, much more than that.
Urban Land Magazine’s article “Investing in Arts Development” author David Malmuth begins, “There is a growing body of evidence that thoughtful investment in arts and culture initiatives can generate significant economic benefits for cities large and small. Looking at data collected across numerous studies, along with the broad array of recent arts and culture plans and projects, one will likely conclude that the right strategy and implementation approach—whether initiated by the public sector or by private interests—can result in significant increases in property values, revenues, and jobs.”
What is necessary for the arts to be effective on behalf of a community and all its citizens is a combination of public and private funding. Not only do the arts directly grow the local economy, but they help expand the business and employee base. They engage at-risk populations, including new Americans, struggling students, the elderly, the incarcerated, youth and more. Finally, they preserve culture, create a sense of place and build community.
All of those initiatives are a significant piece of the agenda of city, state and federal governments, and to say that publicly funding the arts is a poor use of tax dollars is to deny the basic truths of their role in community.
Of course the arts provide transformative, imagination-creating aspects to life as well. At their core, the arts are what make us human beings. They make sense of an often senseless world in ways that nothing else can. The arts open our eyes to culture, history, creativity, emotion, diversity and so much more.
But that’s for the arts supporters who already get it.
That doesn’t resonate with critics who dismiss the arts. The arts are under persistent attack from so many corners that I am weary of trying to find new ways to make the same argument resonate with each new adversary. Critics demand to see the economics of the qualitative growth of populations, business, retention and more. And often, when given the statistics, they still dismiss the value.
I can appreciate that not everyone agrees with me on this issue, but I also know with absolute certainty that there are quantitative and qualitative benefits to investing in the arts that simply cannot be ignored.
Emotions and economics are both part and parcel of the arts, and I implore people to continue to fight the good fight, or the arts could go the way of the dinosaurs, too.
This article is part of a content partnership with The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and originally appeared in the Monday, February 29, 2016, issue of the paper.