While the South Dakota arts community fights to keep Governor Rounds from eliminating arts funding from the state budget (and incurring the double whammy of the loss of federal funds), the U.S. Senate is also taking a whack at the arts. On Friday, Senator Tom Coburn introduced (and the Senate gave 73–24 approval to) an amendment (Senate Amendment 309 to HR 1 and S. Amdt 98) that would prohibit the use of stimulus package money for any "casino or other gambling establishment, aquarium, zoo, golf course, swimming pool, stadium, community park, museum, theater, art center, and highway beautification project."
Naturally our conservative Senator John Thune voted for this amendment, but so did Senator Johnson and prominent liberals Senators Feinstein, Feingold, and Schumer (full roll call here). At least you can't say Democrats aren't willing to compromise to pass this bill.
WSJ's Washington Wire notes the amendment isn't complete anti-arts yahooism. The amendment appears to be aimed specifically at Las Vegas mayor Oscar Goodman, who proposed using stimulus money to build a "mob museum," an institution to celebrate the organized criminals who built Vegas.
But in a classic example of cutting off Picassos to spite Scarface, this amendment lumps all sorts of productive, community-building institutions in with gambling. Museums, theaters, and arts centers are not useless exercises in highbrow foppery. They promote tourism. They generate economic activity. They improve the image of their communities and provide fiscal and cultural benefits that will last well beyond the immediate need to stimulate the economy by hiring people to build and renovate such places.
(Now no stimulus for golf courses I can understand. We ought to tax them more. But parks? We're going to pass a stimulus bill and forbid communities from using the money to hire workers to improve public green spaces? Aaarrgghh!)
The stimulus bill can't (and shouldn't) include money for everything. If the final bill does nothing but build roads, bridges, and power lines, it may still do plenty of good for the economy.
But Senator Coburn, like Governor Rounds, needs a reminder that the arts are not a luxury. They are not a waste of money. The artifacts of human intellect, creativity, and history that museums and arts centers preserve and showcase are integral to our cultural identity. Even a museum about the Mafia could serve an important historical function, reminding us of the darker side of out society (and the need for more spending on law enforcement? how about that, law-and-order Republicans?). Artists and scholars participate economic activity just like other professions and deserve equal consideration as partners in pulling the economy out of the recession.
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