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Column: Art works!

Published: Friday, March 17, 2017 9:51 a.m. CDT • Updated: Friday, March 17, 2017 10:15 a.m. CDT

When we provided an update on the Colfax-Mingo school district’s decision to not fill their elementary arts teacher position in February, there were two key things I learned: Art is valued and money sucks.

It was clear from our reporting district administrators did not want to cut the position. It was even more clear from the high school art teacher’s efforts to provide art education to every student in the district, he was not going to give up on creativity. The students were glad to have at least some time with a paintbrush and paper. But it’s clear, when it comes to art, they all think more is best.

So when I read several synopsis of President Donald Trump’s federal budget proposal released March 15, I was dismayed.

Many domestic programs would be hit by this budget proposal. Agriculture, Labor, Justice and Health and Human Services would all see billions slashed, according to the New York Times. But two less visible programs experiencing cuts made the impact of this budget priority shift really hit home — The National Endowment for the Arts and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

As a whole of the budget, government funding for these two nonprofit organizations are minimal — in the hundreds of millions (not billions). But their impact on the quality and enrichment of people’s lives is great.

When I saw this news, I was reminded of a letter to the editor I received at the Jasper County Tribune shortly after we detailed Colfax-Mingo’s struggle with the arts. It was from a 1989 graduate named Jay Dicks. He’s an author and senior director of state and local government affairsat Americans for the Arts.

This particular passage of his letter has stayed with me:

“While I do not consider myself an artist, my arts education helped me to be a more critical thinker and a creative, innovative person. Creativity and innovation is what employers are already looking for and one of the best ways to obtain these skills is through arts classes,” Dick wrote. “The idea behind arts education is not to create a whole new army of artists, but rather an army of future employees who are able to blend STEM skills along with creative skills to become in demand employees.”

Creativity and an independent voice would both be in jeopardy in Trump’s budget proposal to eliminate funding to these two programs.

The National Endowment for the Arts is self-described as “an independent federal agency that funds, promotes and strengthens the creative capacity of our communities by providing all Americans with diverse opportunities for arts participation.”

According to coverage of the budget proposal in Wednesday’s Washington Wire from the Wall Street Journal, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting provides funding to 1,136 public radio stations, 36 public television stations nationwide and supports production of programs for PBS, NPR and Public Radio International, with a $445.5 million operating budget.

Your favorite shows from “Sesame Street” to “Downton Abbey” to the radio news show “All Things Considered” could be affected.

National defense is one of the primary responsibilities of the federal government. It’s important to protect our country from foreign and domestic attackers. We’ve decided as a nation that effort was worth $521.7 billion in 2017. But what additional costs do we want to make for our safety. If we don’t support our cultural and educational institutions — some of the very programs that help communicate and humanize the American experience — then what are we defending?

It’s easy to put a dollar amount on Naval ships, planes, bullets and guns, but it’s not as easy to quantify art, culture and access to ideas. These institutions may look like very small line-items on a spreadsheet, but what will we be missing when they are gone? Perhaps the American melting pot won’t be as rich — perhaps that American flavor will be more bland without support for public creativity.

Is another $52.3 billion toward the Pentagon worth the creative cost? That’s not the America we’re protecting today, but it’s getting dangerously close to the country we could be protecting tomorrow.

Contact Mike Mendenhall at mmendenhall@newtondailynews.com

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