For the Non-Artist: A Case for Taxpayer Support of the Arts

By Paul T Hogan - Vice President, John R Oishei Foundation:
So art is pretty and inspiring and all that, but let’s cut to the chase: Why should the community of taxpayers who are not directly involved in the arts support them? 
A prevailing viewpoint is that public funds should be dedicated primarily to costs related to the maintenance and improvement of a region’s infrastructure – roads, bridges, waste management, emergency services and the like – and secondarily to attracting or retaining businesses, jobs, people, and generating new external funding. Within that view, how does support of the arts contribute? 
First, while the arts are ‘not-for-profit,’ they are not revenue-neutral. They are revenue-positive in the same way any (most) for-profit businesses are: They generate paychecks, purchase supplies and materials and services from other businesses, and like any sports venue, they generate revenue for many other adjacent businesses, like restaurants, bars, and parking lots. When they work together, as in the Allentown Art Festival, or First Friday Gallery Walk, or Beyond/In Western New York, the economic impact on ALL the businesses in each respective region is positive. Their activity, week in and week out, means revenue for businesses that could not have generated it otherwise, and they have expanded with it, and they have come to count heavily on it.

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Arts activity consistently brings people to places in ways that make fertile ground for subsequent business development. Perhaps the most significant (forgotten) example of this is the Tri-Main Center on Main St. In that huge hulk of a building, nothing generated interest through foot traffic more than Buffalo Arts Studio – a deliberate first major tenant for developer Elgin Wolfe, who used the ‘arts first’ approach successfully in Canada – which was subsequently joined by Hallwalls, and then Just Buffalo Literary Center. Thousands of people were brought there at little or no cost to Mr. Wolfe, which he clearly understood, and within a comparatively short time, the building was filled with all manner of tenants, bringing jobs and all the benefits of a building which remains full today.
There is no question at all that the approach of ‘leading with the arts’ is also demonstrating enormous success at Canalside, which recently announced that fully three times the number of people visited there than did a short three years ago – from 150,000 to nearly 500,000. And beyond some minor infrastructure improvement, no significant building has taken place. No retail development, no matter how large, or with whatever cache, could have made that kind of progress that quickly. 
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What is critical to any business considering opening in Buffalo at Canalside is that hundreds of thousands of people already go there – there’s no need for them to promote themselves to nearly the extent they would have in the absence of the arts activity. It’s fertile ground now, wide open, well-travelled, and with endless potential. Primarily because of the activity of arts organizations that are only partially supported by public funds.
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It is cliché that young people are leaving Buffalo in droves. While the truth behind the numbers is much more subtle than that, the fact is that in national study after national study, and in city study after city study, cultural opportunities for young people is right behind job opportunities as a reason for staying in or moving to a region. Music, art, performance, public space to participate in these, all are critical considerations to people when deciding on a place to live. Because of the historic public support of the arts over the years, Western New York has an incredible array of offerings, which has been noted in a variety of national business and travel magazines – and which are read and used by businesspeople in decision-making roles regarding moving into or expanding within a region. Why should major national business magazines care about the arts offerings of cities around the country? Because it matters to a company’s bottom line. 

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Finally, the arts are not, and should never be, limited to artists and ‘arts lovers.’ Creativity exists in everything that people do. It takes huge amounts of imagination and critical thinking to run a business (I grew up in a family business), or to create and manage a manufacturing process, or design a new widget, or promote different living environments. Art and creative thought is sought and appreciated by people who must turn thinking into action, and action into profit. The creative thinker – Steve Jobs, for example, and a thousand others like him – is the one who succeeds where others don’t, who expand when others stay static, and who drive change toward the new, and the untried, and the next best thing – or the next best place. And the key — perhaps the only — place where creativity, business, art, education, youth, and experience come together is the public library. It is my absolute conviction that the Central Library should be rapidly developed in this regard. Its funding is critical to the cross-sector interactions that will continue to drive Buffalo’s reimagining. v>
Support for the arts is not simply support for strange poetry readings (I’m a poet), or inscrutable plays, or art that ‘my kid could have done.’ It is support for creative thinking – done by all sectors and all people (even politicians) – and forward motion. In my view, it is no more optional than funding roads and bridges. And the taxpayer doesn’t need to ‘use’ the arts any more than he or she needs to use every road or bridge or park supported by their taxes. The arts are equally integral to place, and can’t — shouldn’t — be separated from it.
Lead image: ECHDC

About the author  ⁄ buffalorising

14 comments
PaulBuffalo
PaulBuffalo

Although you don't complain about spending since you like that....

Like? Not true. Spend/regulate only as necessary -- within a budgetary framework whenever possible -- to promote quality of life, diversity, equality, and civic virtue.

Couldn't I ask who are you to complain about things you do on here?

You and others have. I don't worry about it.

I'd be surprised if you're really against all absolutes for public $.

The separation of church and state is my one absolute. Since it's a Constitutional issue, I think I should get a pass on that. As a former altar boy and former believer in a personal god, I wouldn't like the government to promote any religion; however, if it was at all possible to treat all religions equally, I would reluctantly accept it. (If it were implemented, though, taxation on religion would be a fair question.)

... while I think that isn't a smart or fair way to prioritize how public $ is used when there's so many different needs.

Should there be spending priorities? Of course, safety should be paramount. (Saving the front end of your car from pot holes should be in there somewhere, too.)

As far as arts spending, what does the average person in Buffalo and western New York pay in local taxes toward arts/culture? It would be interesting to see how many people would find it unreasonable. (At the state level in 2010, New York State spent $2.50 per person. If that's too much, I suppose people could move to Arizona at $0.15 per person or Nevada at $0.42. I've traveled extensively through both of those states and I don't see any evidence that the private sector or brownie sales have turned either state into a cultural mecca.)

Your libertarianism in an interesting concept but if that means we then have to rely on a modern-day House of Medici to fund the arts and churches to attend to the poor, I want no part of it.

whatever
whatever

Okay, but that open outlook toward govt spending is very different reasoning than what you wrote previously toward me about "who are you?" to say anything that disagrees with majority public opinion.

(btw - I still don't even know WTF kind of question that was to me anyway - "who am I?" Couldn't I ask who are you to complain about things you do on here? Although you don't complain about spending since you like that, you do complain about some things. Riverside Mens Shop issue for instance, or History Museum decisions. Have I ever asked "who are you" to say anything like that, or implied you should be limited to what a public majority supposedly favors at the moment? Of course not. Who is anybody on here? It was a dumb personalized way to attack my view. This way today was much better.)

About absolutes -

I'd be surprised if you're really against all absolutes for public $. For one example, if anybody advocated an amendment to allow direct govt funding of Catholic schools (like are govt-funded in Canada, France, etc.), or govt funding of religions themselves (as happens even still in some parts of France and Germany), I'd bet you'd agree with me in being absolutely against either of those.

But in general, yeah - it sounds like you're open minded toward govt funding of pretty much any types of legal activities at all, while I think that isn't a smart or fair way to prioritize how public $ is used when there's so many different needs.

PaulBuffalo
PaulBuffalo

You never express any opinion that "a majority of the public" doesn't currently agree with you about? Really?

You are welcome to get riled up and start a false argument but to answer your question: I don't draw hard lines regarding government spending. Protest and debate are good things: absolutism ain't.

Why didn't I comment on Jesse's post? Jim L. did a nice job.

PaulBuffalo
PaulBuffalo

You never express any opinion that "a majority of the public" doesn't currently agree with you about? Really?

You are welcome to get riled up and start a false argument but to answer your question: I don't draw hard lines regarding government spending. Protest and debate are good things: absolutism ain't.

Why didn't I comment on Jesse's post? Jim L. did a nice job.

NBuffguy
NBuffguy

Why should the community of taxpayers who are not directly involved in the arts support them?

Because we don't pay taxes just on the things we use directly. For example, I do not like children, don't have any, and don't plan on having any. I am not directly involved in raising children, yet my tax dollars help pay for food, medicaid, and education for millions of them. I don't own a car; still my tax dollars help build roads for them. I am not a woman, a member of a minority group, an immigrant, or an elderly person. Yet the money I pay in taxes helps funds programs that benefit all of them.

You can't just pay for the things you want. It doesn't work that way. When one benefits, we all benefit together as a society. Besides you could easily make the argument that "the arts" are often run like a business, and they do generate revenue. The arts attract tourism dollars to the Buffalo Region, keep many people employed, and add millions of dollars (at least) to the local economy. The arts enhance our education, open minds, expand horizons, make people smarter, and generate revenue. Those are just a few reasons your tax dollars should go to support them.

NBuffguy
NBuffguy

Why should the community of taxpayers who are not directly involved in the arts support them?

Because we don't pay taxes just on the things we use directly. For example, I do not like children, don't have any, and don't plan on having any. I am not directly involved in raising children, yet my tax dollars help pay for food, medicaid, and education for millions of them. I don't own a car; still my tax dollars help build roads for them. I am not a woman, a member of a minority group, an immigrant, or an elderly person. Yet the money I pay in taxes helps funds programs that benefit all of them.

You can't just pay for the things you want. It doesn't work that way. When one benefits, we all benefit together as a society. Besides you could easily make the argument that "the arts" are often run like a business, and they do generate revenue. The arts attract tourism dollars to the Buffalo Region, keep many people employed, and add millions of dollars (at least) to the local economy. The arts enhance our education, open minds, expand horizons, make people smarter, and generate revenue. Those are just a few reasons your tax dollars should go to support them.

whatever
whatever

paul>"If a majority of the public agrees that arts groups -- or any other group, organization, endeavor, etc -- should receive government support, who are you to set an arbitrary line in the sand?"

The public majority here in the small arts org debate in county budget might not be clear cut - but in reply about "who are you to set an arbitrary line?" ….

Huh?

You never express any opinion that "a majority of the public" doesn't currently agree with you about? Really?

So, a few years ago while Collins was the County Exec and a majority of the legislature approved his proposal to end public $ for small arts-culture groups, you're saying the people who protested that should have shut up until the next election because the "majority" had spoken via their previous election choices?

Why?

They didn't shut up - quite the opposite. They immediately started arguing often and loudly, which is their right of course. They lost at the time, then eventually won when the next election came around.

Are you implying no views should be expressed until or unless a majority of public opinion agrees with it?

Is that for everything?

People against invading Afghanistan should've stayed shut up when "a majority of the public" favored it?

People favoring same sex marriage legality should've stayed shut up when "a majority of the public" opposed it?

People against hydrofracking in NYS should shut up now because the Sienna poll says more favor it than oppose it in NYS?

If a majority supports public $ for Bills or Sabres, that means nobody should dare say anything against it because they'd be setting "an arbitrary line in the sand"?

Or is the difference that if someone expresses any p.c. view you favor then it's fine regardless of public opinion and you don't complain...

but if you disagree with it and it's against public opinion then you say that person is setting an arbitrary line in the sand?

That's it, isn't it?

Hmm - or maybe not - you didn't complain that Jesse was setting a sand line. But when I agreed with him, only then you complain toward me. Maybe it matters who the someone is. Weird.

Regardless - it's great how tolerant you are of opinion diversity... lol

Rand503
Rand503

There is a much better reason for government support for the arts. Really, we should have full societal and community support for arts education. It's great that we have the arts to entertain us, but the real value is in studying art. By that I mean, everyone should be playing a musical instrument, or at least involving themselves in creative art in some fashion.

The answer is because people with a background in the creative arts, and specifically in music, are better at reading, writing and mathematics. Music reconfigures that brain in ways that makes those who study it better at the STEM classes. In recent years, studies have proven this beyond doubt. More, those who play an instrument tend to be more innovative by the time they get to their 20s.

The health benefits are enormous. One study showed that playing piano for 15 minutes dilates blood vessels in your upper arm by 16%. Playing music lowers blood pressure and heart rates. It can jumpstart dead parts of the brain, slowing or even reversing the progress of dementia and alzheimers. You will recall that the legislator Gabby who was shot in the head and couldn't speak regained her language skills through music therapy and singing.

Turns out that many IT companies will only hire people with a music background, because they make the best employees.

I could go on and on, but the studies are all clear (and most came in the last 5 to 10 years) and they prove that those with creative arts backgrounds and specifically music backgrounds have significant advantages over those who do not.

If we want the best for our children, we would insist upon music lessons for all, and our society would be far better for it.

PaulBuffalo
PaulBuffalo

Something being important doesn't necessarily mean it should be taxpayer funded. Just as there's a separation between religion funding and government, there can and should be for arts funding and government.

If a majority of the public agrees that arts groups -- or any other group, organization, endeavor, etc -- should receive government support, who are you to set an arbitrary line in the sand?

What's the per capita cost for the arts in Buffalo and western New York?

whatever
whatever

I'll second UpAndComing's compliment of Jesse's comment. All 3 of Jesse's points are very good and well said.

Hopefully the county leg will at least cut back from what Poloncarz proposed handing to arts/culture groups, and instead use the $ for reducing his proposed tax hike - or if it must be spent, use it for things publicly owned (like the holding center, DA criminal prosecutors, or the library system, etc. - many possibilities).

Something being important doesn't necessarily mean it should be taxpayer funded. Just as there's a separation between religion funding and government, there can and should be for arts funding and government.

JimL's point is also good that "this is not unlike the rationale used to justify taxpayer subsidy of the Bills...or rehab of the Lafayette Hotel & Statler Towers....or incentives to lure Geico and other businesses"

All of what Jim listed also shouldn't receive handouts they did from govts. Many people have argued against each of those. But the fact those were given $ by govt shouldn't be used to justify other bad decisions. Two wrongs don't make a right.

Nothing in LittleZ's comment below is convincing that arts groups should have to receive taxpayer $ instead of being fully privately paid for (donations, ticket sales, merchandising, etc).

The point that $5.8M would be "spent right here in WNY" of course also is true no matter what alternative it's spent on in the Erie Co budget. Everything in the budget is spent here, or if any of it is used to reduce county taxes, that also stays in WNY.

Public $ for data centers as Z mentioned or other businesses are also dumb and should be stopped, although in general those aren't decided by the legislature from the county budget. It's done by county & municipal IDAs, and state-level agencies, and even sometimes the fed govt. Crazy for sure, but a separate issue.

Jim L.
Jim L.

My take-away from Mr. Hogan's piece is that government/taxpayer support for the arts is a good investment because it ultimately creates benefit for the greater good of the community.

This is not unlike the rationale used to justify taxpayer subsidy of the Bills...or rehab of the Lafayette Hotel & Statler Towers....or incentives to lure Geico and other businesses, and so forth. All are investments of taxpayer money that carry risk (some succeed, some don't), yet are undertaken because of the hope that they will ultimately add to the municipal fabric.

And while it's true that jobs create the *opportunity* for people to move here (or not move away, as the case may be), it does not guarantee that these folks will move/stay here. If someone has the choice of working here or Milwaukee or Charlotte or wherever, their bottom line decision is based on quality of life trade-offs (job + healthcare + housing + transportation + recreation + schools, etc.) among the competing municipal options. Arts and cultural activities are not inconsequential in that decision making process. They obviously aren't the biggest consideration, but they do matter.

Little Z
Little Z

What is not mentioned in this article or the previous comments are the education programs that nearly every cultural non-profit runs. Programs for children at no cost to them, their families or school districts.

Also, these organizaitons provide free activities available to the every citizen of Western New York year round, and just about everyday in the Spring and Summer.

Is there no value in these things?

No one uses all the services their tax dollars pay for, nor should they expect to. I never had a kid, but pay my school taxes faithfully because I understand the value in a public school system.

Also, the function of government taxation was never intended to generate profit and make money but to pool our collective resources to contribute to the collective good. Many of us feel that funding the arts do just that.

All $5.8 million designated in the County budget for Arts and Culture will be spent right here in Western New York on advertising, props, instruments, construction, printing, maintenance, etc. Compare that to $79 million to fund HSBC's Data Center and consider which one is the better investment.

Up and coming
Up and coming

Great comment and to add my own little flavor, "the Tri-Main bldg looks like shit."

Jesse
Jesse

A few points:

* While there's little point in arguing that "the arts" in general are "revenue positive", there's this little problem Frédéric Bastiat described in "What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen"; you may also know it as the Broken Window Fallacy.

There is only real economic growth when government is NOT the backer in the arts.

All Hogan's arguments here are great reasons for individuals and companies to support the arts, but do not present any solid case for government funding in particular.

* "...in city study after city study, cultural opportunities for young people is right behind job opportunities as a reason for staying in or moving to a region."

Most 'experts' would agree that Buffalo has an excellent arts scene.

So why are we still losing young folks? I guess the takeaway here is that the importance of 'cultural opportunities' is FAR below 'job opportunities' in those studies.

* Finally, it's sort of strange to see a VP of a private foundation (with the wherewithal to donate plenty for all the arts they desire) pushing the rest of us to support it.

(nb. I am a season ticket holder to Shea's. I mostly get it. I just don't ask anyone else to help pay for my tickets.)

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