The president recently announced he wanted to see more emergency funding to make sure the nation’s innovation economy survives the pandemic and remains able to stand up to foreign competition. He called for extending the special unemployment benefits already granted workers in that sector of the economy, as well as making additional funding available for the businesses that employ them. Perhaps you missed this news? It was all over the news — the news in France. That’s because the president we’re referring to here is the French President Emmanuel Macron and the innovation economy he’s concerned about is his country’s arts community.
There are lots of differences between France and the United States. The French eat snails. We generally don’t. The French seemed rather amused — and certainly not outraged —when Macron’s predecessor carried on a torrid affair while in office. But here’s another, more substantive, difference: The French regard the arts as an integral part of their economy, and we don’t. We are not here to endorse escargot or infidelity. But the French, for all their joie de vivre, do have a more cold-eyed and bottom-line appreciation of the arts as economic development.
Consider the language that Macron used in announcing his aid package for the arts: “Cultural venues must be brought back to life, artists must be able to create again and to work together to reach audiences, even if, during this intermediary period, we’re going to have to rethink a new sort of relationship with audiences.” We don’t hear American politicians talking like that. (For what it’s worth, Macon is that rare political animal — a centrist. He defeated both candidates to his left and right to win the French presidency.)
Actually, that’s not the most interesting thing Macron said. It’s this: Macron said he was acting to “defend European creativity” against competitors from the United States and China. Yes, bringing cultural venues “back to life” is a big deal in a country where tourism is a major industry. Even some American politicians might say something like that. But when Macron starts talking about the need to “defend European creativity,” that’s the language of economic development. He’s not just talking about making sure the box office receipts at The Louvre remain healthy, he’s talking about something else entirely. It’s one thing for tourists to see the work of artists long since dead, it’s another to make sure the ones living can afford to keep creating.
This is a far different view of the arts than the one that Nikki Haley — the former South Carolina governor, the former U.N. ambassador and perhaps future presidential candidate – took after Congress passed one of its pandemic relief bills. She took to Twitter to ask:
“These are the items included in the stimulus bill:
$75 mill for public television/radio
$25 mil for the Kennedy Center
$75 mil for the Natl Endowment for the Arts
$75 mill for the Natl Endowment for the Humanities
How many more people could have been helped with this money?”
It’s always fair, of course, to ask about trade-offs: Would that money have been better spent somewhere else? But she seems to act as if artists aren’t really people, or part of the economy. News flash: Arts jobs are jobs.
The pandemic is a fine time to remember this. Two years ago, the Roanoke Valley-Alleghany Regional Commission produced a numbers-filled report titled “Economic Impact of the Arts and Cultural Industry in the City of Roanoke.” Here’s the most insightful of those numbers: $35.89 million. That’s the overall economic impact of the arts sector in Roanoke — both direct spending at events and the downstream effects of that spending. Some context for how to think about that $35.89 million figure: That’s somewhat less than what Radford University students spend each year in the region (about $47.3 million) and a little more than the estimated economic impact of Dominion Energy’s hybrid energy plant in Wise County ($31 million).
We think of those as real things, so we ought to think about the economic impact of the arts in the same way.
Before the virus shut down the economy, we were accustomed to the governor sending out a press release (or sometimes showing up) to announce some company was about to create a bunch of jobs — 15 in Pulaski County last July, 25 in Covington last October, 56 in Franklin County in January, 61 in Roanoke County in February. We’re grateful for all of those, of course. But here’s some context: The arts industry in Roanoke creates more jobs than all those put together. The study found that the arts employ 108 people full-time in Roanoke, plus 86 part-time and another 524 either seasonally or on a contract basis. Whichever figures you prefer, they seem big enough to prompt us to bring out the classic line from “Death of a Salesman”: “Attention must be paid.”
Here’s the attention that should be paid now: The virus has shuttered the arts world, just as its shuttered other industries. Some of those arts groups are still incurring expenses. The animals at Mill Mountain Zoo still have to be fed. The art at the Taubman Museum of Art still requires security. Insurance bills still come due. Furthermore, whenever the economy reopens, the arts will probably come back slower than other sectors. How comfortable will people be to sit in a theatre with strangers and breathe recycled air for several hours while they watch a show? Nobody really knows. How many people can venues allow if social distancing is required? Estimates vary, but it’s certainly not a packed house. That’s the kind of thing that can change whole business models and not necessarily for the better. Revenue may go down, but expenses will still be the same (if not higher, to account for cleaning). Ticket prices may have to go up — or somebody will have to cover those extra costs.
The point here is not to plead for government funding for the arts: We’re not France in that regard. The French see the arts as an integral part of their cultural identity. Many Americans — we’re looking at you, Nikki Haley — clearly do not. When Macron talks about “defending European creativity,” he’s thinking of the arts almost in national security terms. However, here’s what we ought to keep in mind: All those non-profit arts organizations that now sit dark are integral to the quality-of-life pitch that communities make both to potential employers and potential residents. If we still want to have them, somebody is going to have to pay to make sure they survive. Is that you?