Art Is about Jobs?


Today, as expected, the South Carolina House voted to override Gov. Nikki Haley’s veto of Arts Commission money. Specifically, she vetoed $1.9 million for the Commission itself – effectively eliminating it – and $500,000 in grants. The House overrode the first veto by a vote of 110 to 5, and the second by a vote of 89 to 25.

Those who defend public funding of “the arts” (however defined) have almost always concentrated on the public benefits of a thriving arts community. Whatever one thinks about that argument, its underlying assumption is that the private economy can’t or won’t support a flourishing arts community. The occasional writer might stumble into a bestseller, but there’s just no way for most artists to get by without some level of public support. That’s the justification behind grants to symphony orchestras, museums, individual  artists, and public television and radio.

And even the most libertarian among us have to admit: It’s not an inherently stupid argument. It has a level of cogency.

But now we’re in the era of state-driven “economic development,” when every conceivable government program and initiative can be justified on the grounds that it “creates jobs.” Back in the 1990s, new government programs were always about “the children.” Now they’re about “jobs.” Indeed, state agencies that have nothing to do with economic development – the Forestry Commission, for example, and the Department of Agriculture – now have multimillion-dollar economic development budgets.

“The arts,” it turns out, are about “jobs,” too.

The mayor of Columbia, writing in yesterday’s State newspaper, put the argument straightforwardly: “A state with 9.1 percent unemployment,” he argues, urging lawmakers to override Haley’s veto, “cannot afford to put 108,000 creative-economy jobs at risk.” “The Arts Commission,” he goes on, “is the cornerstone of an artistic and creative industry cluster that impacts our state economy to the tune of $13 billion annually. … By providing the infrastructure necessary to turn artistic talents into successful businesses, the Arts Commission helps transform $2.4 million in annual budget and grants into $571.5 million in state tax revenues.”

In other words, there are 108,000 jobs in South Carolina tied to the arts, and unless the Arts Commission is allowed to use its $2.4 million budget to facilitate this “artistic and creative industry cluster,” those jobs could be imperiled and the state will forego a lot of economic growth and, in turn, $571.5 million in tax revenues.

It’s unclear where these figures came from or how they could be verified, but according to the mayor, here’s how it works:

You see, in the final analysis, this isn’t just about art. It’s about jobs. It’s not just about the author who writes a novel. It’s about the editor who edits the novel, the graphic artist who designs the book cover, the printer who prints it and the bookstore owner who sells it. It’s not just the artist painting a landscape. It’s the art store that sold her the oil and canvas, the frame shop that frames the finished work, the gallery that displays it and the small businessman who buys it to hang in his restaurant.

Most arguments justifying state-driven economic development schemes have at least a faint air of plausibility: If we train workers for companies (the thinking goes), those companies will come to South Carolina and create more jobs. If we give a company tax credits, we’ll make up for it once the company employs a lot of people and starts hiring.

The mayor’s argument, however, stretches credulity to the breaking point. He isn’t making the usual argument that we shouldn’t cut off poets and songwriters and sculptors because they do great work and the market won’t support them without taxpayer help. He’s saying, rather, that these poets and songwriters and sculptors are adding value to the state’s economy and thus creating jobs.

We wish that were true. But it isn’t. The overwhelming majority of novels don’t make money for the author, publisher, or bookseller. Hardly any paintings make money, and if the odd one sells for a significant price, it won’t be anywhere near enough for the painter to live on. In order to keep producing and not starve, the novelist or painter must get a job and write or paint on the side.

That’s where, traditionally, the Arts Commission has come in. The Commission, as well as the National Endowment for the Arts, have used grants to try and get artists through the production phase and get their finished work in front of the public. But, whatever these agencies’ press releases might claim, everybody knows they’re not “investing” public money in the usual financial sense, and that there will be no monetarily quantifiable “return.” Whether that’s a good or bad way to encourage the production and appreciation of art is debatable. But the point of government arts funding is about the value of art, not economic growth.

After all: once you grant that the state’s “artistic and creative industry cluster” can generate economic growth by itself, you obviate any need for an Arts Commission.

But leave that aside. Suppose the arts community could generate economic growth without government help. Suppose there was a reasonable likelihood that, with a grant from the Arts Commission, the novelist or painter stood a good chance of selling his or her work and making a profit by it. How would the Arts Commission know which artists had popular appeal and which didn’t? How would the Commission know which books or song recordings were going to “break through” and make a profit, and which had no chance? Of course, they wouldn’t know. They’d be guessing, or relying on what they thought deserved a wider audience whether it had commercial appeal or not. The major New York publishers have a hard enough time figuring out which authors stand a chance in the market. It is impossible to believe that a few bureaucrats at the South Carolina Arts Commission can do any better.

And yet that’s the whole premise of state-driven economic development. That premise is this: that government officials somehow know which private companies are worth investing in, and which aren’t; that somehow state lawmakers and Commerce officials have greater foresight into the dynamics of the market than experienced investors in the private sector.

This is the logic of state-driven economic development. It’s nothing new. But by applying it to the arts, we’ve reached a new level of absurdity.

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