When 200 SciTech High School band members from Springfield blew the roof off the State House on Feb. 15, we handed out earplugs — just to be on the safe side. More than 99 percent of these kids had never played an instrument when they signed up for band. Now they were receiving the state’s highest honor in the arts, a Commonwealth Award. Band director Gary Bernice says the chance to perform and take a bow in front of Massachusetts elected leaders “made their decade.”
These kids attend a striving school in a scrappy city. There are 500 students in the band at SciTech, up from just five when Bernice started teaching here. To stay in the band, you must come to school, do your homework, and get good grades.
Springfield, lacking an abundance of wealthy patrons and corporate headquarters, is the kind of place where public funding for the arts is crucial.
Now public funding is threatened. This year we face the most serious threat to the National Endowment for the Arts in decades. This as we begin the centennial of the president who gave birth to the idea of federal support for the arts, our native son John F. Kennedy.
“[F]ar from being an interruption, a distraction, in the life of a nation,” Kennedy said of the arts, “it is very close to the center of a nation’s purpose — and is a test of the quality of a nation’s civilization.” It was President Lyndon Johnson who signed the law creating the National Endowment for the Arts, saying, “Art is a nation’s most precious heritage. For it is in our works of art that we reveal to ourselves, and to others, the inner vision which guides us as a nation. And where there is no vision, the people perish.”
These ideals are the foundation of public investment in the arts. Beyond that, consider their economic impact, their contribution to quality education, and the way they prepare our youth for the creative economy. Arts and culture contribute more than $700 billion to the national economy and employ nearly 5 million people.
Many who would end support of the NEA suggest that the arts can be sustained with private funding. It is people at the low end of the economic ladder who stand to lose the most if the NEA is gone. Federal arts funding goes to every congressional district in the country, just as Massachusetts Cultural Council funding goes to every city and town in the Commonwealth. Close to $4 million in NEA funding comes into Massachusetts every year. That’s over 20 percent of public funding for the arts here. But in Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire, federal funding can make up half of all public funding for the arts.
Public funding is essential. It assures two things that cannot be delivered by private funding alone.
First, places in America that do not have the resources of generous individuals and businesses can still have access to the economic, educational, and community value that the arts deliver.
Second, public funding of the arts assures that our great art, our national legacy, belongs to all citizens of our country. The public dollar purchases an ownership stake for everyone, regardless of their station in life.
President Johnson said, “It is in the neighborhoods of each community that a nation’s art is born. In countless American towns there live thousands of obscure and unknown talents. The arts and the humanities belong to the people, for it is after all, the people who create them.”
The legislation creating the National Endowment for the Arts says its purpose is to ensure a “climate encouraging freedom of thought, imagination, and inquiry.”
This is not about funding a piece of art. It is about the freedom to make and experience art. It is about the freedom to imagine and question and think.
We tax ourselves to empower ourselves. And the power we get from public funding of the arts is one that our nation’s founders held most dear: freedom.
Massachusetts will fight to protect the National Endowment for the Arts. On behalf of the legacy of our native son. And for 500 kids in a Springfield high school band.
Anita Walker is the executive director of the Massachusetts Cultural Council.