Arts Funding: Economic Engine and the Healing Power of Art Therapy

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities, it is time to correct a long-standing misconception that has infected our political debate for far too long: funding for the arts is a waste of taxpayer money. The reality is, this funding creates a return on investment rarely seen in other industries, all while creating jobs, boosting our economy, and helping students perform significantly better in school. Making these investments should be common sense.

As co-chairs of the long-standing and bipartisan Congressional Arts Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives, we recognize that the arts are major pillars of our nation’s economy. For every dollar the United States spends on federal arts initiatives, nine non-federal dollars are leveraged, generating roughly $600 million in matching support. The non-profit arts industry alone generates $135.2 billion in economic activity and supports more than 4 million full-time jobs. Unlike many sectors in today’s economy, arts and culture actually contribute a trade surplus, with higher exports and lower imports from other countries.

This tremendous multiplier effect and return on investment is staggering, and should be reason enough for Congress to increase arts support. But this investment is also helping our men and women in the military. Through a unique partnership between the NEA and Walter Reed Army Medical Center, established in 2011, creative arts therapy and arts engagement programs are helping improve the health and well-being of members of the military. As part of this program, art therapists are working side-by-side with treating physicians to engage patients and help them process traumatic events and restore neurological and physical function through non-invasive and cost-efficient treatment.

This program continues to grow and touch the lives of countless service men and women and their families. Melissa Walker, who administers therapy to soldiers at Walter Reed Hospital, has discussed the transformative power of the arts, saying, “While I will never understand what they have been through completely, each piece of artwork inches us closer to their truth.”

Study after study has shown the positive impacts of an education rich in the arts. Students show lower dropout rates and higher test scores, and those with four years of arts education score about 100 points higher on the SAT. This can have a major impact as students move from the classroom to their careers, with reports from the Conference Board showing that creativity is among the top five applied skills sought by business leaders.

The arts also provide important social benefits to communities nationwide, with some studies linking a high concentration of the arts to higher civic engagement and lower crime and poverty rates.

Many members of Congress are likely to hear about the importance of the arts this week as more than 500 people travel from across the country to Washington, D.C. to make their case for increased funding as part of Arts Advocacy Day. This includes advocates from every discipline, including dance, theater, graphic arts, arts education, music, visual arts, media arts, opera, design, as well as the Very Special Arts program through the Kennedy Center that works to provide education programs for individuals with disabilities.

This strong, unified coalition has been instrumental in helping advance key initiatives over the years, including expanding support for federal cultural agencies like the NEA. In 2015 alone, this agency granted $116.9 million in appropriated funds through 2,337 grants. Remarkably, at least one award reached every congressional district in the nation.

These advocates will be an important counterbalance to those calling for drastic and misguided funding cuts for arts programs. Members of the House and Senate would be wise to listen to the stories they hear. The arts are a dynamic economic, educational, and cultural force that reaches every community in the nation. It is time for Congress to finally give these programs the support they deserve.

Congresswoman Louise Slaughter represents New York’s 25th Congressional District; Congressman Leonard Lance represents New Jersey’s 7th Congressional District.