Shortchanging the Arts

WHEN health care and welfare reform are at stake, how can a case be made for funding the arts?

There are the necessities of life - the bread and butter issues, and then there are the pleasant extras, the caviar and cake, or so it is perceived.

Who would dare ask money for a symphony orchestra or a ballet company when a single child is going to bed hungry at night?

If such comparisons are to be made, the arts will never win the argument. But how about comparisons tilted in another direction?

The budget for the National Endowment for the Arts - $170 million - is smaller than the figure the Department of Defense appropriates for its 102 military bands. The budget has barely changed in 12 years, and the White House has requested the same amount for the new fiscal year beginning in October.

A single film, ``Jurassic Park,'' grossed enough money ($860 million) to fund the NEA budget for five years.

For her talk show, Oprah Winfrey is said to be rewarded with a sum - $60 million - amounting to more than a third of the total NEA budget.

The money Americans gamble away every year - an estimated $330 billion - makes odds of 2,000 to 1 by comparison with the dollars invested by the NEA, and the gambler's dollars are more likely to take food out of a child's mouth rather than feed it.

But why go on, dwarfing the financial commitment to the arts by further comparisons with what Americans spend on pets, cosmetics, and so on? To keep the focus on money is to apply the wrong measurement.

When Jane Alexander, who chairs the National Endowment for the Arts, convenes a conference called ``Art 21'' in Chicago next month, Henry Cisneros, the secretary of housing and urban development, will be among the speakers, symbolizing that the arts are not an elitist luxury but a social necessity.

There are two kinds of poverty. When the hungry child has been fed, he or she may be hungry for, say, music to hear or perhaps create.

In underfunding its arts, the country is underestimating the needs of the spirit - ignoring how the arts nourish the members of a community and make it civilized.

If the Defense Department can spare money from a Stealth bomber to finance 102 military bands, why not just a little more small change to fund the arts?

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