When President Joe Biden signed the American Rescue Plan into law within his first 100 days of office, some questioned why it included funding for the arts and humanities. Each of our agencies – the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities – received $135 million to support and sustain arts and humanities groups as well as educational institutions facing financial hardships brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Critics called it “wasteful spending” or unrelated to coronavirus recovery.
Yet many arts and culture organizations, from America’s small towns to its big cities, were among the hardest hit by the pandemic last year. An American Alliance of Museums survey found that 15% of the country’s museums are at risk of permanent closure. Similarly, within higher education, more than 650,000 people employed by colleges and universities have lost their jobs over the past year.
Infusion to reopen for summer
Part of getting America going again is getting the arts and humanities sectors going again. The rescue plan funding will help to ensure the long-term health of the arts and humanities sectors by enabling organizations to rehire and retain workers, resume their activities and plan for a sustainable future. With the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines and the promise they hold for summer travel, cash-strapped museums and performance centers will require an infusion of funds to rehire furloughed workers and adapt buildings and programs to new health protocols in order to reopen their doors to the anticipated waves of tourists hungry for cultural experiences.
But we still hear the question: Why do the arts and humanities sectors matter?
One answer is their significant impact on the economy. In 2019, arts and cultural economic activity accounted for 4.3%, or $919.7 billion, of gross domestic product. Practitioners in the arts and culture sectors directly contribute to the nation’s economy, and moreover, their activities generate jobs for those not directly in the arts or humanities.
Orchestra and museums employ technical staff, curators, administrators and directors, no matter the size of the organization. Scholarly publications require printers and publishers, sets must be built by designers, and costumes need seamstresses and garment makers. Universities, libraries and archives employ workers trained in fields ranging from specialized academic scholarship and conservation science to facilities management and information technology. Local economies depend upon arts and cultural organizations to supply the products that fuel tourism and that attract visitors to attend a lecture, a concert or an exhibit – and who may also shop, dine or stay in a hotel.
Another answer, equally important, is the broader noneconomic importance of the arts and humanities to communities. They help us understand the world around us, “encouraging freedom of thought, imagination, and inquiry.” Those last words come from the legislation that created the arts endowments back in 1965.
The belief that the arts and humanities are essential to society is hardwired into the endowments’ founding legislation: “An advanced civilization must not limit its efforts to science and technology alone, but must give full value and support to the other great branches of scholarly and cultural activity in order to achieve a better understanding of the past, a better analysis of the present, and a better view of the future.”
Critical investments in hard-hit sectors
The NEA and the NEH strive to live up to that belief to build a better country through their grantmaking. Our agencies support thousands of arts, education and cultural organizations annually that address the needs of their communities. The funding we distribute is a lifeline for our nation’s museums, archives, theaters and symphonies; our historic sites, libraries, colleges and universities; our music festivals and dance companies; our state and local arts and humanities centers. This critical investment in these hard-hit sectors provides greater financial stability for these institutions, allowing them to be better resources for all Americans.
There is still much to do. Whether it is strengthening Americans’ knowledge of the principles of our constitutional government, ongoing efforts to advance racial justice, the continuous specter of COVID-19 and ensuring schools have the resources to reopen safely, many Americans are fearful and, in some cases, grieving. In these tumultuous times, arts and humanities institutions have a unique role to help us all engage more deeply, build empathy and create bridges of understanding.
The arts and humanities are critical for the healing process, and for reflecting on who we are and who we want to be. Our agencies are committed to supporting organizations and voices that contribute to this rebuilding.
Ann Eilers is acting chair of the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Wolfson is acting chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities.