Funding the arts pays for itself many times over

From racist restrictions on education to anti-LGBTQ+ performer bans, there is an alarming rise in laws across the country targeting freedom of speech, freedom of thought, and freedom of expression. New York must take this moment and these actions very seriously. In addition to speaking up, strengthening our laws, and protecting targeted communities, our response must include active, passionate, and sustained support of the artistic freedom of expression for which our country is known.

Gov. Kathy Hochul has championed the arts in the past. But this year, arts funding from its executive budget was 80 percent less than last year. Now is the time to increase our investment in this critical sector, and we urge the Legislature and Governor to consider the power and importance of public funding for the arts and culture.

The benefits of culture are present in cities of all sizes in New York. To highlight just a few examples among many: The Schweinfurth Center for the Arts in Auburn brings together children, teens and adults for classes, discussions and exhibitions of art and world-renowned quilting, providing an invaluable space to connect. And along with Auburn’s theaters and music venues, the center draws visitors and dollars to the city. The Broadway hit “Hamilton” examines our country’s history through a lens that finally includes immigrants and black Americans. It also brings millions of dollars into the New York economy every year. And the popular “drag story hours” let kids and families enjoy the myriad ways to be human.

The truth is that culture is powerful. It inspires thought and discussion; it brings us together. And it brings us back to our streets and public spaces. This is key not only to healthy communities, but also to our economy.

The importance of culture to our economy and mental health is not just wishful thinking; seen in the data. The creative economy made up more than 7 percent of New York’s pre-pandemic gross state product, generating $120 billion in economic activity. Of the $54 billion spent by tourists in New York City, 12 percent went to arts activities, and the remaining 88 percent went to restaurants, hotels, shopping and local transportation. If we don’t fund the culture that brings visitors, local economies will suffer.

The arts strengthen our communities in other ways, too. Studies show that neighborhoods with strong cultural assets are safer and have better mental health, improved educational outcomes, and stronger civic engagement. And don’t forget the healing power of the arts, especially as our communities see an increase in mental health issues: Children who have trouble re-entering a structured school environment, for example, find an outlet in dance classes that move them, in theater where they tell their stories and in the music lessons that teach them mastery and bring them joy.

It is important to note the impact of public funding in delivering the benefits of the arts: Hamilton began life as a non-profit theater dependent on both public and private support, and Schweinfurt recently received transformative funding from the State Council of the arts in New York. Both investments will pay off many times over.

From a commitment to freedom of expression, learning and the mental health of our citizens to equitable economic vitality in every community, funding the arts is an investment in what makes our state great.

Lucy Sexton is the executive director of New Yorkers for Culture & Arts. Elizabeth Reiss is CEO of the Capital Region Center for the Arts and president of Arts NYS.

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