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Critic's Notebook

Stimulate, that's what arts do

Nonprofit culture puts $166 billion into the economy annually. Surely


Congress is closing in on the down payment of a huge spending package, designed to create jobs to ward off double-digit unemployment and begin a revival of the tanking U.S. economy. So here is a modest proposal: The federal government -- which means you and I -- should pump $62 billion into the nation's nonprofit cultural infrastructure.

Yes, that's billion-with-a-b, not million-with-an-m.

Forget about the silly dickering over an anemic $50-million boost for the National Endowment for the Arts. About 100,000 nonprofit arts groups operate in the 50 states. Collectively they employ almost 6 million people. Crisis is a time for boldness, not timidity, and few recall an economic crisis quite like this one. So art museums, symphonies, theaters, dance companies and other cultural centers should get a huge infusion of funds.

Apparently the money is there, waiting to be spent. The question is what to spend it on. The Obama administration has given stimulus plans two goals: to create jobs that move money into and through the faltering economy and to do it in ways that benefit the citizenry. In both instances, I vote for ballet, not bombs.

That simple, stark distinction is how I came up with my arbitrary cultural funding figure. Separate from stimulus plans, Boeing and Lockheed Martin have been angling for $62 billion to maintain funding for production of their F-22 Raptor fighter plane, and it looks like they might get it -- even though the weapon, conceived during the Cold War, is irrelevant to current U.S. security requirements. The Raptor is a fine machine, designed in the 1980s to guarantee American Air Force superiority over the Soviet MiG-40. You may have noticed, however, that the Soviet Union disappeared about 20 years ago. Yet the costly Raptor program lumbers on.


An old fighter

President Obama must decide by March 1 on its continuation. Lawrence Korb, assistant Defense secretary in the Reagan administration and a widely respected national security analyst, has described the F-22 as "the most unnecessary weapons system being built by the Pentagon." Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, a holdover from the Bush administration, has been critical of its usefulness and cost.

Yet that hasn't stopped 46 senators, led by Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.), senior legislators in the states that primarily build the thing, from signing a letter to the president urging F-22 continuation in the 2010 budget. So have more than 150 representatives in the House. According to Congressional Quarterly, the old pitch that the airplane is a security demand has been gilded with a new one: An ad campaign says the F-22 is now essential to stave off unemployment in a collapsing economy.

The deal will cost the government more than $650,000 per job, which seems rather pricey. It's a make-work scam for the military-industrial complex, which President Eisenhower warned 50 years ago would eventually sink the nation.

By contrast, jobs at stake in the nonprofit cultural sector dwarf those assigned to the fighter plane. The letter to Obama says the F-22 provides $12 billion annually in national economic activity through 25,000 jobs in 44 states, as well as 70,000 that are indirectly affected by the program. Meanwhile, the national lobbying group Americans for the Arts says the country's 5.7 million workers in the nonprofit culture industry contribute $166 billion to the annual economy.

Here's one example of how job stimulus money could be productively spent on cultural infrastructure. Ever since it opened a quarter-century ago, the former warehouse space in Little Tokyo operated by L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art has been universally acclaimed as a superlative exhibition venue. The successful adaptive reuse even became a model for other admired projects, including London's Tate Modern and New York's Dia: Beacon.

Yet MOCA's aging warehouse has problems. The absence of museum-quality climate control limits the long-term display of art from the permanent collection, as well as the short-term loan of art from other museums. Curatorial support space is inadequate, visitor services minimal. As is, optimum potential will never be reached.

MOCA estimates the upgrade cost at about $20 million. The rehab would create and retain construction jobs, directly as well as indirectly from suppliers; ensure future levels of museum employment; and add permanent infrastructure value to the cultural landscape.

Now, multiply that by 100,000. I suspect every one of America's nonprofits has at least one unfunded project that it would like to get going -- "shovel-ready," as it were, even if the job doesn't involve bricks and mortar. A program tour, say, or a school program. A big-ticket job like MOCA's could get individual scrutiny, but merit review for all of them is hardly practical; so how would funds for a cultural infrastructure stimulus package be allotted?

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