Wednesday, September 22, 2004

The arts - more than an amenity

None of us likes higher taxes. Most of us think government spends too much.

And frequently, when allegations of government excess are leveled, the fingers point menacingly toward the arts. Government, most of us agree, should focus on the nuts and bolts - crime control, roads, fire protection. The same for schools - reading, writing and arithmetic. Add to that the controversies spawned by the occasionally offensive work of art that turns out to be funded in part by tax dollars, and it is clear that the arts face an uphill challenge when seeking public support. Especially when money is tight as it is, for example, in Springfield. (And when isn't money tight?)

We agree with the "nuts and bolts" philosophy of government. The question is, what constitutes those fundamentals?

At the annual National Edge City Conference in Schaumburg this week, a strong argument was made that the arts should be part of that equation.

This is a particularly relevant discussion for those of us in the Northwest suburbs. The village of Schaumburg has made an especially overt effort in recent years to support the arts. The village of Arlington Heights earlier this year got into a feisty and at times acrimonious debate about whether it should buy the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre. And of course, more than ever, school districts are forced to set priorities.

It is easy to circle the arts when talking about where to cut government spending. But think of Chicago and what images occur to you? Your list wouldn't grow too long before it included the Picasso statue or the Art Institute. Think of how much Chicago is enriched by art. Think of how less it would be if it didn't have it.

The same is true for us in the Northwest suburbs. The arts we have make us richer, help define us, contribute greatly to our quality of life, make this a more desirable place to live.

Speaking at the Edge Conference, Julie Burros, director of cultural planning for the city of Chicago, also made the argument that art programs attract tourists and as a result help spur the local economy.

Alton Miller, a faculty member at Columbia College in Chicago, told the gathering that communities and businesses see a return on dollars invested in the arts.

"I honestly believe the arts will make you smarter, make you happier, make you richer," he said. "It will improve your chances of promotion on the job, and they'll improve your social life."

In defining the health of a community or a person, the arts aren't luxuries; they are requirements. They are, in essence, part of the nuts and bolts.

Miller called on community leaders "to be a hero for the arts." We echo that call.