Opinions

Why we must make a case for the arts — Alaska style

The arts are woven into the fabric of society. We depend on the arts to connect us to an outside world, to be entertained or comforted, to learn about new cultures and ways of being, and to escape a current reality that itself can seem like a horror movie. Yet we constantly require the arts sector to prove its worth and indispensability, a fight it’s been at since much earlier than COVID-19. When school budgets are in question, arts curriculums are the first to get cut. In Anchorage, the Mayoral Arts Grants budget has steadily declined for decades. Government funding for the Alaska State Council on the Arts is a fraction of what it was in the 1980s. With limited state and private funding opportunities, we pit artists and arts organizations against each other.

Yes, the arts and culture sector can tell its own story better. Still, it is the responsibility of surrounding institutions to pick up that work and buoy the significance and social fabric of the arts. If we ask ourselves whether the arts are worth fighting for, the answer should be a resounding and emphatic “Yes!” Not only do the arts contribute to healthy, thriving communities, but the arts and culture sector is an economic driver. The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis reports that in 2019, the arts and culture sector contributed $1.45 billion to Alaska’s economy, representing 2.7% of the state’s GDP — a share larger than many other industries. In a typical year, the sector employs nearly 12,000 Alaskans, compared to 2,675 mining jobs. When we invest in arts and culture, we are investing in our economy — and getting returns. The total financial impact that museums alone have on the economy in Alaska? $280 million. The arts also are a driver of tourism. In 2005, world-renowned artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude installed “The Gates” in New York’s Central Park. The project was ephemeral, lasting only two weeks, yet drew millions of visitors to the city during a month when tourism is typically at its lowest. The exhibit generated an estimated $250 million for the local economy. Imagine what something like this could mean for Alaska. Other states and nations are investing in the arts for economic and civic growth and stability. The arts give back.

The arts and culture sector is among the hardest hit by COVID-19, losing almost 40% of jobs and virtually pausing all programming. Our work now, as businesses, institutions and local and state governments, is to stand beside arts organizations and fight for them in this recovery. We must acknowledge that we have benefited from their contributions — often from undercompensated and overworked staff — and ask ourselves how we can better support them in partnership and advocacy. We must stop piling more work on overly burdened staff to continually prove their value. We must ask ourselves how to shift the false narrative that arts are not integral to a thriving society. What work can we do on a local level to infuse the value of arts and the importance of dedicated financial investments and funding streams? How can we shift the story that funding the arts is not, not funding the police?

This past year, Rasmuson Foundation saw an opportunity to leverage CARES Act funds for arts and culture by challenging municipalities across Alaska to make arts investments a priority. The Municipal Arts and Culture Matching Grant Program provided a match up to $50,000 per municipality to support arts and culture organizations affected by the pandemic. Thirteen local governments took advantage of this opportunity — out of 144 that were eligible. We congratulate these communities for stepping up: Anchorage, Bethel, Cordova, Denali Borough, Fairbanks, Haines, Homer, Juneau, Kenai, Ketchikan Gateway Borough, Kodiak, Petersburg and Unalaska.

Fortunately, the Alaska arts and culture sector is well-represented in Washington, D.C. Our congressional delegation has consistently supported appropriations for the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

In Anchorage, we have entered a mayoral transition. Mayor-elect Dave Bronson has placed a high value on economic vitality. A strong vision and realistic plan for the arts and culture sector aligns well with that intent. Every mayor should not only be asked if they support the arts, but how they will support the arts. What funding will they provide for arts and culture organizations? How will they support individual artists who struggle to afford rent in an inflated market or go without health insurance because it is too expensive? What do they know of the creative economy, and what will they do to encourage its recovery?

Yes, arts are woven into the fabric of our society, but it didn’t just happen. Think of the painstaking effort it took Alaska’s First Artists to make that basket, blanket, doll and carving, and the intentionality with which those skills were passed on. Make no mistake about it, we must be as deliberate.

This is our call to action.

Diane Kaplan is Rasmuson Foundation president and CEO. About one-quarter of the Foundation’s grants support arts and culture. Enzina Marrari is a practicing artist and Rasmuson Foundation program officer who manages its Individual Artist Awards.

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