Coburn and McCain: Giving the Arts a Starring Role Again

Senators Tom Coburn and John McCain have issued their third list of what they present as misuse of stimulus dollars: Summertime Blues. Once again they have given arts projects a starring role.
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Senators Tom Coburn and John McCain have issued their third list of what they present as misuse of stimulus dollars: Summertime Blues, "100 stimulus projects that give taxpayers the blues." Once again they have given arts projects a starring role. Jared Bernstein already wrote a piece about this today on the Huffington Post.

Their previous lists included such activities as jazz festivals and Shakespeare theatres, and here in Philadelphia, a couple of theatre companies. The Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance spoke out about the inclusion of local arts groups here. I also wrote about it on my blog.

This new list includes, by my count, ten arts-related projects among the 100 they cite. Of particular note is that they include (sharing #98) the Creative Industry Workforce Grant program operated by my Office, in partnership with our Commerce Department, funded through "Community Development Block Grant - Recovery (CDBG-R)" money. A total of $500,000 was granted to eight projects. All grantees were carefully chosen through a rigorous and highly competitive process that looked at both short-term construction jobs (these were all capital projects) to provide an immediate stimulus effect, and longer term generation of low and moderate income jobs through creative industry activity. Funded projects were a mix of for-profit creative industry development and non-profit arts projects. Here are some examples:

  • $60,000 for the creation of artist studio and creative business incubator space to help ex-offenders with creative talents develop micro-enterprises and employable skills.

  • $50,000 towards the construction of a new 12,000 square foot affordable performance, visual and media arts space combined with mixed-use residential and commercial space.
  • $40,000 towards the creation of artist-in-residence space in a recycling plant that will allow artists to work with materials diverted from the recycling and landfill stream and educate the public about recycling.
  • All these projects employ construction workers in the short term, and artists, creative industry workers, and support staff as an outgrowth of the construction creating new businesses and jobs. In addition to the Recovery mandate, the CDBG program mandate required us to also ensure we were assisting low and moderate income people and communities.

    All of these people employed as a result of this investment spend money, buy groceries, pay rent, make car payments, just like any other citizen. Does their economic activity somehow not count? Is the tax that they pay somehow different from a department store (or a defense contractor)?

    As I said in my earlier post, I do not doubt that there are many poorly executed stimulus funded projects that are not working as intended. I think some that is unavoidable given the very nature of distributing huge sums of money quickly, in a decentralized way, combined with enormous red tape and demand for immediate results. And I don't doubt that perhaps some of them might be arts projects. It is clear, however, that in compiling this report arts projects could "do no right" as far as the authors were concerned. An insect museum in Raleigh NC makes the list because they have too few visitors to justify being funded, while a glass museum in Tacoma makes the list because their visitorship appears to be healthy and they therefore do not merit support.

    What I can argue with is the clear intent to single out arts (and historic preservation) projects. And I can certainly object to the characterization of Philadelphia's Creative Industry Workforce grant program as meriting inclusion in the McCain-Coburn report. It may not be perfect, but it was a modest, innovative effort to foster creative businesses and jobs, and help neighborhoods in need of investment.

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