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Ryan Craggs/MEDILL

The Goodman Theater was among the host of Chicago-area arts organizations to receive grants through the Recovery Act.


One act: The merit of spending stimulus money on the arts

by Ryan Craggs
Feb 17, 2010


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Who got the money

Notes on text in the play

All lines by John McCain have been taken from the “Stimulus Checkup” report published by McCain and Sen. Tom Coburn.

All lines by Shakespeare are in blank verse.  Single lines come from his published works.

All lines by Deborah Stewart and Victoria Hutter are quotes from interviews with both.


ACT ONE

(Chicago, amid recession, 2009. In the bleak economy, budget deficits and decreased consumer spending threaten the city’s lively arts scene. A single room, dark, save for a light above a conference table. JOHN MCCAIN, UNCLE SAM, and WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE enter the room.)

UNCLE SAM
The laments pour in like tributaries to the river—the street pavers, the teachers and the suit-and-tie types alike. We flood together. We wade together. We need together. But we must also act together, and swiftly, damming these banks that overflow.

JOHN MCCAIN
My friends, the federal government must join American families in prioritizing its spending by making tough decisions.

UNCLE SAM
But every decision is a tough decision. Who’s to say that one man’s livelihood trumps another’s? Bread on the table is bread on the table, whether it comes from a pothole filled or a patrol car on the street. A job is a job.

JOHN MCCAIN
Congress needs to make hard choices and eliminate things that are a low priority—even if doing so is unpopular—so we can preserve this country for future generations.

SHAKESPEARE
But what price has art? What of social debts?
We talk of pillaged vaults, empty billfolds.
We count the shutter boards of foreclosed homes
and bailout fueled cars driving off lots.
But what of culture fleeced? A bookless child?
This country wants jobs and she deserves jobs.
But when the strings pull tight, art chokes for life.
Is man still man without theory or thought?

UNCLE SAM
In these murky waters, art may be more dead weight than ballast.

JOHN MCCAIN
To be or not to be—that is the question for these stimulus projects.

(VICTORIA HUTTER, public affairs specialist at National Endowment for the Arts and DEBORAH STEWART, director of foundations and government relations at Steppenwolf Theater, enter.)

VICTORIA
An arts job is like any other job. Artists have families to support, kids who go to college. They pay taxes; they have mortgages. They are of the same value as any other job in the economy.

DEBORAH
These stimulus dollars allow us to continue our seasonal planning without having to change what we had in place. The recession hit well into where we were in our long-term planning. In terms of stimulus grants, they will help us preserve lines of employment that we had been planning for.

JOHN MCCAIN
(Pauses)
Spending $25,000 for a puppet show may not seem like a big deal in Washington, but for most Americans it is a lot of money.

VICTORIA
But one might argue that funds to arts organizations go directly into circulation. There aren’t other steps that have to be accomplished before those funds have to be utilized in the economy. In that respect it’s a useful form of economic assistance.

SHAKESPEARE
An honest tale speeds best being plainly told.

JOHN MCCAIN
Americans who have lost their jobs, health insurance, or homes, are facing mounting personal debts, but are also faced with the question of who will pay off the staggering national debt that has grown by more than $1.4 trillion over the past year.

UNCLE SAM
Can a country in such dire straits support the arts? With hungry mouths to feed and the common man in fear of sleeping on the street, is this endeavor a worthwhile one?

VICTORIA
It’s a side of the arts community that hasn’t been talked about in years, but it’s gaining more understanding. People are looking at arts infrastructure and how it fits in with other economic sectors and its role in the economy.

DEBORAH
Ticket sales are holding their own at this point. But there’s no question the arts suffer during the recession. The state is looking at dire times and perhaps funding is drying up there, or at least there will be severely reduced grants. We’re looking at hard times to come.

UNCLE SAM
If we are to do this, we must act swiftly and succinctly.

VICTORIA
As soon as the president signs this bill, we will be at work. We have a system in place. We will work with organizations we are already familiar with. Anyone who has applied to the National Endowment for the Arts in the last four years will be eligible for money. We will have two rounds: State and regional grants, and direct grants.

UNCLE SAM
But how best can we apply this money?

VICTORIA
The money has to support a job recently vacated or threatened to be vacated. It cannot create a new job, and 40 percent of grant-making funds go to state arts agencies and regional arts organizations around the country.

UNCLE SAM
Is this truly feasible?

VICTORIA
Completely. These applicants can only get one bite from the apple. They can get state money or direct money. Non-profits arts are a resourceful and creative bunch—it’s part of their day-to-day work.

SHAKESPEARE
The object of art is to give life a shape.

(UNCLE SAM walks forward, in front of the conference table, alone under the spotlight. JOHN MCCAIN, SHAKESPEARE, VICTORIA and DEBORAH exit stage.)

UNCLE SAM
It was George Washington who once said, “Bad seed is a robbery of the worst kind: For your pocketbook not only suffers by it, but your preparations are lost and a season passes away unimproved.” We must heed the words of this founding father in our time of need. We must separate the wheat from chaff, but must not confuse intangibility with uselessness. Man requires food and shelter, for certain, but his soul needs nourishment just the same. This seed of art allows us to re-grow and prosper. We will support the arts. We will save jobs. And they will be jobs with value just as any other. Sins of omission are sins just the same, and neglecting the arts would be unwise. To that end, they are fully a part in the fibers of the American ideal: Those unalienable rights we call life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

(UNCLE SAM exits)