Our local arts programs are both critical and necessary

The Yamhill County Board of Commissioners put out a request for proposals for American Rescue Plan Act funds earlier this year.

The call for applications did not restrict arts organizations from applying, or suggest they might be ranked lower than other types of organizations. But now two of the commissioners are balking at arts funding.

ARPA is providing $350 billion to help states, counties, cities, and tribal governments cover increased expenditures, replenish lost revenue and mitigate economic harm from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

We know the arts community in the U.S. was hit hard by the pandemic.

Virtually all forms of artistic endeavors, from theater and music performances to gallery viewings, were curtailed for an extended period. Millions of artists and performers, along with the organizations dedicated to supporting them, sustained significant financial losses.

ARPA funds, including this round of local funding for nonprofits, were meant to offset some of those losses. And the federal ARPA program has not been discriminating against arts programs.

The local threat of discrimination was raised this past week by Commissioners Lindsay Berschauer and Mary Starrett, who together form a majority on the three-member board. They decided to ignore the grant committee’s recommendations, even though they included only two local arts organizations among the 18 recommended for funding.

Starrett explained her thinking this way in a Facebook post: “I’m committed to supporting the ‘needs’ before the ‘wants,’ especially in light of what could potentially be a devastating recession.” But there are so many problems with this take.

First, the ARPA money was not meant to address the consequences of a potential recession, but to redress the fallout of the pandemic.

An August 2020 Brookings Institute report estimated the fine and performing arts sectors of the US economy had experienced the loss of 1.4 million jobs and $42.5 billion in revenue during a three-month period of 2020 alone.

The authors said arts, culture and creativity constitute one of three key sectors, along with the science/technology and business/management sectors, driving regional economies. They said, “Any lasting damage to the creative sector will drastically undercut our culture, well-being, and quality of life.”

Second, while there is no doubt that food banks, women’s shelters and other social service entities also deserve assistance, why should two county commissioners get to bypass both the stated grant criteria and the grant committee’s recommendations, calling for inclusion of two arts associations as well? Why should they be the arbiter at this late stage of what is a “need” and what a “want”?

Grant funding criteria is meant to be objective. The applicants who meet the established criteria are the ones who should receive the funds.

Changing the rules in the middle of the process leaves everyone confused and wastes the valuable time of those who applied. It’s not only astoundingly unprofessional, it’s profoundly disrespectful.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, why is it that some people are so quick to throw the arts under the bus, discarding them as unnecessary, decadent or otherwise unworthy of public support? This smacks of authoritarianism and suppression.

Are we to go back to the Nazi era, when certain art was considered “degenerate”? Or the McCarthy days, when artists were suspected of communism if their art did not conform to certain “standards”? Or, more recently, to the Trump regime, when the National Endowment for the Arts, a supporter of LGBTQ artists, among others, was targeted for cuts?

Are certain organizations and the people who support them being targeted because they have spoken out against other actions of the commissioners, or because the arts are perceived as “liberal,” making them fair game?

One irony of denigrating the arts as just a frivolous “want” is that the arts in fact do put food on the table for many, many people, myself included. And participation in the arts provides so many other benefits, from learning new skills to creating community to building self esteem to getting children and parents off their computers.

One of the biggest benefits is helping people regain and maintain hope and optimism.

How many of us turned to music or comedy during those endless pandemic months when everything was the same, and time turned in on itself? How many of us turned to writing or singing or painting to make sense of it all or to just while away the hours?

Look at how many people took up new hobbies like drawing or playing an instrument. And witness how people flocked back to live music and theater performances as soon as it was possible.

How many suicides didn’t happen because we could turn to the arts for solace? We may never know, but I’m certain that the numbers is significant.

It’s certainly laudable to support nonprofits providing social services. But that doesn’t justify changing the stated criteria for grant applications after the fact, or arbitrarily deciding that the arts are somehow less worthy of ARPA support.

We can and should fund both types of programs, and we have the money to do so.

Yes, hard choices have to be made. But the argument for throwing the arts under the bus isn’t actually logical; it’s short-sighted and thus detrimental to us all.

The arts are essential for a healthy society. If our elected leaders can’t see that, perhaps we’re on a terrible path toward a new era of McCarthyism and authoritarianism.


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