Now, in the midst of an economic crisis, is precisely the right time for state policymakers to find ways to expand public access to culture — history, concerts, art, music, zoos, aquariums, science, dance and theater.
Culture is not, as some critics suggest, a waste of money or a frivolous pastime for the rich. Culture is for people of all ages and incomes, and access to culture is especially important in hard times. Culture gives people pride as they look backward, and hope as they look forward. On a more basic level, culture is vitally important to economic recovery.
The notion of using culture as a tool for both uplifting the human spirit and the economy isn'êt a new idea. President Franklin Roosevelt'ês Works Progress Administration (later Work Projects Administration) employed thousands of artists, writers and performers, including local icons Mark Tobey and Jacob Laurence, as part of a successful effort to stimulate employment and to give people hope during the Great Depression.
Fortunately, there is legislation pending in Olympia that could go a long way toward expanding public access to culture. The proposal would enable communities across the state to create publicly funded Cultural Access Funds which would allow more people to visit science centers, aquariums and zoos across the state.
The Cultural Access Fund idea is the brainchild of the Prosperity Partnership — a coalition of nearly 300 leaders from private companies, organizations and government agencies that is developing strategies for keeping the region competitive in a challenging and changing global economy.
The proposal is drawing bipartisan support, as it should, among legislators. It is endorsed by the Tacoma City Council, and the King and Pierce county councils. The Washington Legislature should act on the proposal soon — before the end-of-session rush, and to send an early signal to cultural organizations that are faced with cutting back hours, raising admission fees and shortening seasons.
Once cultural offerings are shuttered, it could be years (if ever) before they are revived. Some 10,000 culture-related organizations nationwide have already disappeared or are close to ending their operations, according to a recent Associated Press report. Congress, led by our own Rep. Norm Dicks, recognized the value of culture by setting aside $50 million in the recent economic stimulus package. The bill calls for 40 percent of the new money to be distributed to state cultural agencies and regional cultural organizations.
But, as important as the congressional action was, $50 million spread across the entire country is just a lifeline. Every community in the state hosts cultural programs, from school theaters to the Pacific Science Center. Taken together, these programs make a big contribution to the economy. The offerings generate tax revenue, help keep and attract employers who provide well-paying jobs, and play an important role in motivating and educating youngsters.
Communities that support vibrant cultural organizations are more attractive to companies looking to locate or expand their businesses. The highly skilled and educated employees that companies seek to attract want access to diverse cultural experiences. Further,cultural resources such as zoos, aquariums and science centers play an important role in developing critical thinking, reading comprehension, language and mathematical skills in young minds, according to the research. Children who are exposed to culture are more likely to excel in school, especially in math and science.
Support for culture is about breaking down the barriers that block public access. The cost of transportation, especially for cash-strapped schools, is a significant barrier that limits access for students. And admission charges, which are obviously needed to fund operations, are a barrier for many individuals and families.
The Cultural Access Fund would look for ways to improve access by supporting "free days" and discounted ticket programs; transportation subsidies, new collaborations between cultural programs and school districts, and other tactics. Improving access to students and families from rural areas is its priority.
Other regions of the country have figured out the economic and educational value of cultural investments and have established programs to foster cultural institutions and expand public access. The metropolitan Denver region created a Scientific and Cultural Facilities District more than 20 years ago. Voters in St. Paul, Minnesota and St. Louis, Missouri have likewise created special programs. They recognize the yield that investments in science, arts and culture return — especially in a down economy.
The Cultural Access Fund is a great idea that legislators should move quickly to approve. Investment in expanding access to science and culture is good for the economy, good for education and good for the soul.