Monday, August 6, 2012

The arts and climate change

Posted By on Mon, Aug 6, 2012 at 6:00 AM

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What does it take to turn a skeptic into a believer? In the case of Richard Muller, a physics professor at the University of California at Berkeley, the answer is research.

Muller had pooh-poohed the claims of other scientists about climate change. In fact, his climate change skepticism was so robust he attracted the support of the infamous Charles Koch Charitable Foundation, bankrolled by the right-wing billionaire, which reinforced Muller's skepticism through grant-funding.

But, to his credit, Muller's interest in learning about life on earth trumped his opinions and, along with a team of researchers, he ran the numbers on what's been happening to the earth's temperature over the past 250 years. "I concluded that global warming was real," wrote Muller last week in the New York Times, "and that prior estimates of the rate of warming were correct. I'm now going a step further," he added. "Humans are almost entirely the cause."

Bravo, Professor Muller. It may have taken you awhile to get with the hundreds of other scientists who have found that evidence of the human impact on our climate is beyond a reasonable doubt, but, once the evidence was coughed up in a way you could appreciate, you were willing to change your mind. That's a step in the right direction.

But this column isn't about climate change. It's about the arts. That's right, the arts.

Americans For the Arts has been studying the economic impact the arts have on communities. They traveled around the country and crunched numbers in 182 regions to learn how the arts business affects the places where it lives.

I call it the arts "business," because business is what it is. Yes, the arts that were the focus of this research operate in what we call the "not-for-profit" sector of the economy. But that doesn't mean they don't provide people with jobs, or that the ripple effect they create doesn't put money in the pockets of a host of other workers, from parking lot attendants to bartenders.

According to the Americans for the Arts research, the Indianapolis nonprofit arts and culture industry generated $384,244,432 in total expenditures in 2010. It supported 13,136 jobs.

These are serious numbers, particularly when you consider that this city's annual budget for arts support is a comparatively paltry $1.3 million.

Like the vast majority of scientists who have been warning us about climate change, many of us so-called "arts supporters" have been waving our hands and jumping up and down about the positive impact public investment in the arts brings to Indianapolis. We've talked about how every dollar spent for the arts generates even more dollars that get translated into revenue for state and local government, as well as local businesses and, last but not least, the workers who actually make dances and plays and paintings.

This positive return on investment has existed for years. As a matter of fact, I wrote about it when Americans for the Arts released its last economic impact study in the pre-recession year of 2005, when the numbers were even better.

The trouble is, the people who make policy around here either ignore these numbers, or flat-out deny them. This is odd, since these people are supposed to be trying to find cost-effective ways to spend public money. Ways, that is, that bring Indianapolis the biggest bang for its buck.

These are the people now stumping for Indianapolis to host another Super Bowl. Man, oh, man, they say, that Super Bowl was the best. Indianapolis looked great on national TV. The talking heads on ESPN raved about our walkable Downtown, and it was a blast seeing celebrities like Lance Bass and Alyssa Milano — if that's who they were — outside Buca di Beppo. How major league can you get?

Look, if it takes a Super Bowl to get the city to finally address a previously neglected neighborhood like East 10th Street, that is truly great. If throwing another Super Bowl in 2018 gets us something like a halfway decent public transit system, I'm all for it.

In the end, though, according to The Indianapolis Star, the Super Bowl actually lost the city $1.3 million — the equivalent, ironically, of what it allocates for the arts.

This, however, is not a problem. "It's not just numbers, it's the city's brand," said Ann Lathrop, president of the Capital Improvement Board. She told WISH-TV that the loss still managed to be "a pretty good return on investment."

OK, fine. I guess you have to spend money to make money — or maybe that's lose money. Whatever.

The thing is, year after year, in study after study, research shows that the arts return more on investment than almost anything else we spend our money on. This fact, however, has not prevented Indianapolis from investing less in the arts than almost any other city of comparable size in the nation.

When it comes to the arts, Indianapolis is like those people who keep saying climate change is just a myth. How much longer will we deny the research before we do something that actually makes things better?

Read more about the Arts & Economic Prosperity IV study at .AmericansForTheArts.org.

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