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The Art of Hard Times

OPB | March 10, 2009 9 a.m. | Updated: Sept. 10, 2013 8:49 p.m.

hellochris / Flickr / Creative Commons None

The latest “everyone has to tighten their belts” news came out last week, and it wasn’t pretty. As the Oregonian reported, among the budget lines being cut to make up for the $855 million shortfall:

$2 million that goes to counties for economic development; $1.2 million to treat problem gamblers; $4.1 million aimed at cleaning up sites contaminated by hazardous waste; and $900,000 to prevent child abuse.

And then there was $1.8 million from the Oregon Cultural Trust. It’s this last bit that has engendered a firestorm of angry protest by bringing up two very different questions. There’s a specific one: Is it appropriate for the state to use money donated for a clear purpose — in this case to fund humanities and arts projects — to plug a budget shortfall in a miserable biennium? And then there’s a more general one: How much money should be spent on the arts in such a difficult time?

At least one private institution is making the case that art has an important role to play in cash-strapped times. Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust — who is watching the university’s endowment drop 33% to $24 billion — recently announced that the arts deserve more attention, not less:

Especially in difficult times, when ways of thinking and doing that we have taken for granted are challenged… we must encourage our students to ask fundamental questions and to solve problems in the inventive and collaborative ways exemplified by the making of art. Art produces experiences and objects that are carefully constructed and intricate reflections of the world. Empathy, imagination, and creativity are forms of knowledge that a university must foster in its students…. In times of uncertainty, the arts remind us of our humanity and provide the reassuring proof that we, along with the Grecian urn, have endured and will continue to do so. Now is the time to embrace, not retreat from, the arts.

What would it mean to follow Harvard’s rhetorical lead? Does a city or a state’s embrace of the arts necessarily mean a retreat from social services? If you’re in the arts, how are you dealing with tighter public funding, or a frozen private market?

And what about the art itself? What is art’s role in a recession? What is its worth?

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