Art (like roads) is essential to building a city

Art – The Soul of the City

Infrastructure :: The roads, bridges, power lines overhead, data lines in the ground, water, sewage, and so much more. These are the things that make our cities workable. And there's pretty much consensus that these are the kinds of things the government should be doing. 

A city isn't only its skeletal infrastructure. A city also has a soul. 

And it's the soul of a city that actually makes people want to live there. Look at cities like NYC or LA – they have significant (yet insufficient) infrastructure, but that's not why they're home to millions of people and some of the world's leading companies. Rather, it's the culture of the place that makes cities what they are. 

Physical infrastructure makes a city workable. But art and culture make a city livable. 

 The Orlando Philharmonic at Creative City Project's annual event. 

The Orlando Philharmonic at Creative City Project's annual event. 

Public Funding of the Arts

In the past several decades, there have been numerous threats to defund the National Endowment for the Arts. Mainly led by politicians who, frankly, just seem unaware of the role art and culture play in making life, cities, and our country a livable place. 

For me, there's great importance in public funding of the arts – inherently, in and of itself.

Art makes people and the places they inhabit more interesting, thoughtful, and diverse.  

But for many, I know that's not enough. Thankfully, there are many advocacy organizations, like Americans for the Arts, who do the math to show the economic impact of arts and culture on a city. 

The Numbers

The annual budget of the NEA that politicians threaten to defund is $150 million. Of course, to you and me, that's huge. But in the grand scheme of things, that number is .003% of the Federal Budget, according to the Washington Post. Or about 1/16 of the price of a single stealth bomber. 

While the US allots about $150 million USD to the arts, Germany allots about $1.63 billion USD and France's cultural budget is about $10 billion annually (source). 

The comparisons seem to not only make the threat of eliminating the NEA laughable. It also seems to make the lack of US investment in cultural institutions embarrassing. 

The Real Effects

In articles decrying the work of the NEA, we see anecdotal examples of the uses of arts money on projects the writer positions to seem like dumb art projects. But, of course, the work of the NEA and many pubic art funds is diverse. 

According to this article, 

The NEA has sponsored 30,000 concerts, readings and performances, as well as more than 5,000 exhibitions (attended by 33 million people), and supported performances on broadcasting and cable to at least 360 million more.
The NEA also has helped create art therapy for injured servicemen and partnered with the White House for its 2014 holiday tour.

And here's a more localized and personal account of public arts and culture spending. 

A Story of Local Arts Investment

After seeing dozens or maybe even hundreds of my creative friends leave Orlando for other parts of the country, I decided to do something about it. In 2012, I called my artist friends and asked them to create a work of art or do a performance in a public space somewhere in the city. 

Over the last 5 years, that initiative has grown to platform neatly 1,000 artists for an audience of more than 20,000 in 2016 as the Creative City Project's annual arts event, IMMERSE.

 A silks performer high over a downtown street at the Creative City Project's annual event, now named, IMMERSE.

A silks performer high over a downtown street at the Creative City Project's annual event, now named, IMMERSE.

The event is free to the public and has developed an important, big mission to "shape the global perception of Orlando as a city known for innovation and creativity." It's not just about artists making art.

It's about building the perception of our city and developing its cultural identity. It's as much a public work as building bridges and roads. 

But our organization would have never gotten to where we are without public funding. 

Here's a list of arts and cultural organizations who receive some funding in Central Florida through United Arts of Central Florida. Many of these orgs get money from Orange County through the Tourist Development Tax, a tax added to the cost of hotel room rental.

Creative City Project is on this list. We also receive funding from the State of Florida.

Again, why are the arts an important investment? I am CONFIDENT and have seen with my own eyes (as well as the data) that arts and culture are the #1 driver of economic development in a city. It's the reason talented people choose to live where they live. It's one of the primary reasons companies choose the cities they choose to plant their headquarters. 

Recently at a Creative City Project event, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer asked rhetorically,

“How do you attract the bright, young people who are going to make your city a success?” Then answered, “The arts scene is a big part of that.”

 Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer at the Creative City Project's launch of IMMERSE.

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer at the Creative City Project's launch of IMMERSE.

What Can the Arts Do?

Think of Austin, TX. Twenty years ago, you most likely wouldn't have much of a reference point. But for most people, Austin has an ethos today.

The main reason it has become the city it is now is because of the work and activity of SXSW (which receives about $775k in services from the city annually). But SXSW has returned so much to Austin in the way of shaping what it is in the eyes of the world and the economic effects thereof. 

But this is nothing new. It's a centuries long tradition in cities throughout the world : The Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, and La Tomatina in Buñol 

There is no point in building roads if there is nothing to experience at the destination. 

Public funding of art is essential because, without it, there is no culture. That's what roads are good for. Roads exist to take people to where culture is.