Investing in the arts is a hard sell

Judging by the folded arms of five gubernatorial candidates — the five in a field of eight who were brave enough to show up Tuesday in New Haven to discuss investing in the arts as other states do — the message that the arts stir the economy isn't stirring them.

That smacks of going along rather than leadership and innovation. What they were being asked to consider isn't a handout. It's essentially a stimulus package, much like tax breaks for incoming employers or small business development money or funds to fix infrastructure.

Credit goes to Democrats Ned Lamont and Joe Ganim, Republicans Tim Herbst and David Stemerman, and unaffiliated candidate Oz Griebel for answering the invitation from Create the Vote CT, which is urging candidates not to ignore arts and arts education.

Create the Vote CT is a nonpartisan public education campaign. Its organizers, the Connecticut Arts Alliance and Connecticut Alliance for Arts Education, invited gubernatorial candidates in the race before the Aug. 14 primary to respond to six questions and to participate in the New Haven forum.

Candidates are not showing much openness to increasing the state's $4.2 million annual investment in the moneymakers that arts and cultural organizations have proven themselves to be — even though increased investment is having excellent returns in other states, including Massachusetts.

Aware that voters are waiting for them to fix the state's deficit and deal with its staggering pension obligations, candidates are shy of the appeal to invest in the arts sector.

No one is disputing the state's fiscal urgencies or suggesting that school children need arts as much as they need school lunch and health care. Rather, Create the Vote is determined to show that arts spending makes a significant economic return. The group is armed with metrics of how much Connecticut audiences and arts consumers spend in connection with attending just the nonprofit attractions: $797 million reported in 2017.

Yet these would-be governors, who are claiming to bring innovation and insight to solving the state's fiscal problems, seem to fear voters will think they are giving away money the state cannot afford.

They have reason to fear, even if they should have the guts not to: While some commenters on and agreed with sensible suggestions from Lamont and Griebel that the private sector should also be a greater source of investment, many just can't get past the idea that arts and culture are luxury expenses.

Create the Vote likely faces multiple election cycles before it can shift the debate where it belongs, to the question of whether to invest. I hope they will stick with it.

Voters, and those whom they will elect this fall, need to shed some of the Yankee reluctance to clutch old ways of thinking, particularly the notion that not spending is always better than wise spending. That's how you get potholes, and worse.

When arts and culture funding began to slip in 2009, the sector largely went silent. Cultural organizations knew a recession was a poor time to be pointing out what arts do to make Connecticut a good place to live. They may have ceded their legitimate explanations of why people value art, music, theater, dance and assorted festivals enough to spend money on tickets, even in hard times.

Create the Vote CT is reviving that lost awareness. Their argument is also in the interest of openness and fair play. As it stands now, arts funding is done quietly behind the scenes at the legislature, often at the tail end of the session, with both the legislators and the beneficiaries just as glad if no one notices.

Investing in the arts is nothing to be embarrassed about. It makes good economic sense.

Lisa McGinley is a member of The Day editorial board.



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