St. Paul, Minn. — Think about it: Remember those stories about $600 toilet seats procured by the Pentagon? Yeah, sure, it was an outrage, but somewhere in their hawkish little hearts, supporters of a strong defense conceded that maybe the occasional cost overrun was part of the price tag to keep us safe from the marauding whoevers.
Farm subsidies, corporate tax credits, light-rail, welfare. No sane person really thinks that every dime for these kinds of projects is being maximized. But, owing to the intrinsic inefficiencies of government, those who believe such programs serve a greater good simply must be willing to wink at a little feather-bedding here and a bit of fiscal malfeasance there.
So let's give voice to a dirty little thought: How about wasting some money on the arts?
There's a bill wending its way through the Minnesota legislature right now that would allow voters to set aside a small slice of the state's sales tax to fund the Minnesota State Arts Board and other cultural organizations.
And, in St. Paul last week, Mayor Randy Kelly proposed a new plan that calls on government, foundations and arts organizations themselves to pump an extra $25 million a year into the city's arts and culture infrastructure. Can I guarantee you that every dollar from those initiatives will be spent with altruism and care? Well, most arts groups are used to being poor, and so their idea of lavish spending probably has to do with paying the light and heat bills in the same month.
Still, humans will be humans, and so I suppose financial largesse might result in some theater buying a chinchilla-lined lighting board or Baccarat crystal for the greenroom. But let's look at what those wasted dollars would buy us. Even with the current, unconscionably low level of government funding, arts already have a $1 billion economic impact in Minnesota. Cultural tourists spend a third more in the state than do people who come for, say, a Twins game. Kids with a high exposure to the arts score up to 100 points higher on their SATs.
Those are hard, quantifiable numbers. But radiating out from the cold calculations are benefits that ripple through our economic and social lives.
Art helps bridge cultures. It sparks imaginations. It's one of the most efficient gadgets in an educator's toolbox. It enlightens, goads, challenges. It makes us nimbler intellectually and more rounded spiritually. It creates communities and cities and states where people want to live.
NEA chairman Dana Gioia once said that "a great nation deserves great art." I'd like to amend that sentiment a little bit. A great nation—or a great state or a great community—NEEDS great art. In fact, the quality of art is a measure of greatness, not a byproduct of it. And guess what? Like anything else, art needs a little bit of money to survive. When we're parsimonious, we waste something more valuable than money. We settle for mediocrity. And we fritter away our opportunity for greatness.