New script, big roles for arts groups

They're gaining clout and money under the Obama administration despite recession

Before President Obama was inaugurated, leaders of 21 arts service organizations sent his transition team a list of recommendations, which included increasing the budget of the National Endowment for the Arts from $155 million to $319 million. That the idea wasn't rejected immediately was seen as a welcome signal — among the first of several that the nonprofit-arts community has received from Washington recently, despite the ever-deepening fiscal gloom.

The first 100 days of the Obama administration has been a heady time for arts advocacy groups such as Americans for the Arts, the Association of Performing Arts Presenters and the Theatre Communications Group. Although they didn't get all the money they wanted for the NEA, they played a critical role in the president's inclusion of an extra $50 million for the endowment in the stimulus bill he sent to Congress. The administration has also placed a greater emphasis on the arts by hiring two aides, Kareem Dale and actor Kal Penn, to work on policy and outreach. (In fact, Penn exchanged his role on Fox's "House" for a job in the West Wing.)

The warm welcome for the arts community also extends to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. In late March, Congress held two hearings on the arts in a six-day period, a rare occurrence. The first, organized by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, examined how the fiscal crisis is affecting job loss and creation. The second was led by Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Interior, which plays a big role in shaping the NEA budget.

The second hearing was held as part of Arts Advocacy Day celebrations, which were coordinated by Robert Lynch, president and CEO of Americans for the Arts. He was among the most public of the private-sector advocates pushing for the stimulus money and the addition of $10 million to the NEA budget this year — just two examples of the greater muscle that arts groups suddenly seem to have.

"What we're looking for is to be able to affect congressional decisions and support for arts and arts education," Lynch said. "Just the fact that we had two congressional hearings at the end of March is a major accomplishment, a real step forward. The Education and Labor Committee hadn't held a hearing on the arts in, I think, 10 years. And the point that we're trying to make — that we're always trying to make — is that the arts are economically important to cities, to businesses, and to America as a whole."

Although the Appropriations subcommittee hearing had a lot of star wattage — including Wynton Marsalis, Linda Ronstadt and Josh Groban — it was the testimony of actor-producer-director Tim Daly that helped bring the proceedings to life. "I don't believe it is commonly known that entertainment is America's second-largest export," said Daly, who is also co-president of the Creative Coalition, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group, "and millions of Americans earn their livelihoods through the arts and in ancillary occupations."

After fretting that Americans "too often look at art as something extra, a luxury item, something that is disconnected from our daily lives and our economy," he laid out his case in detail. Daly began by saying there are "roughly 45,000 working professional actors" in the U.S., citing a Bureau of Labor Statistics figure, and explaining that when an A-list star does a film, "the real economic story is about the thousands of people put to work." He exhorted the members of Congress in attendance to watch the credits of the next movie they see, to "get a sense of the huge number of actors, craftsmen, editors, technicians, and others who work so hard to bring that film to the screen."

Drilling down, he talked about the economics of his ABC series, "Private Practice": "It takes us nine days to shoot one episode. We employ about 200 people day in and day out during production season. For two of those nine days, we have a second crew of 50 people on set, in addition to those regularly working on the show, and each episode can have 100 to 300 extras. Look beyond those employed on the show and you'll see the ripples spread still farther across the economy. In that nine-day period, the show spends about $20,000 on food from outside caterers, $25,000-$40,000 is spent on clothes and costumes, $2,500 on dry cleaning and $15,000 on furniture for the sets. Again, those numbers are for a single episode. Add up the numbers and the sales tax — and the money spent in the community by those employed on the show — and it quickly becomes apparent how big the impact on the local economy can be."

Such arguments might not have swayed Congress while the stimulus bill was being debated — the MPAA tried and failed to get $246 million in tax credits for the studios — but they have been effective at the state level. The California Legislature, facing a $42 billion deficit, recently approved $500 million in tax credits for the studios, to help stanch runaway production fueled in part by tax rebate programs for the TV and film industry in some 40 other states. As for-profit enterprises, the studios do not receive any money from the NEA.

The effectiveness of arts advocates has been gradual, with their influence built over time, Lynch said. A key was the 2004 founding of the Arts Action Fund, a nonprofit membership organization whose tax status allows it to lobby political figures, which has given advocates a stronger foothold. "I think some of the relationships we've built with congressional leaders — like last year, when Robert Redford testified to Congress about the arts — have helped us to make the case," he said, "especially now, when the discussion is tied to the arts being included as part of the economic recovery."

Indeed, no one should overlook the fact that arts advocates are learning to play politics with superior marksmanship. (partialdiff)
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