The arts rarely are mentioned in the context of political or economic coverage, unless it is the opening of a glitzy new venue or a kerfuffle over a Mapplethorpe exhibit or some other over the top cultural expression.  Public arts funding has been squeezed hard by the fiscal crises at every level of government.   Nonetheless, funding of the arts and fostering new creative visions need to be on the agenda of both public and private sector institutions.   Nowhere is that truer than in California.

The Golden State’s creative spark, along with great weather,  have made our state a pacesetter–both economically and culturally. The respected Otis College Report on the Creative Economy attributes one in eight jobs in the Los Angeles region to creative endeavors from  entertainment to fashion, toys and interior design.  That adds up to more than $230 billion in economic activity in Los Angeles and Orange Counties.  The arts are, of course, about a lot more than money.  The arts open up our minds and souls.

The arts don’t just happen, particularly the non-commercial variety.  While in other developed nations, there is significant governmental financial support  for arts and culture,  in this country  it is miniscule (only about a tenth of one percent of all government spending).   This means that private philanthropy and ticket sales have to carry the load.  Not a problem for the Hunger Games movies or the Book of Mormon,  but hard slogging small productions and individual artists pioneering new ideas, new concepts and new visions.

If we are going to nurture the arts and creativity, then there must be a public commitment.  Just funding concert halls, museums and opera houses  does not cut it.  The National Endowment for the Arts and state and local arts councils are woefully underfunded.  There needs to be a real public commitment to the arts–working hand in hand with private philanthropy and entrepreneurship.

A great example  is the Center for the Art of Performance  at UCLA (CAP-UCLA) which embodies a public-private partnership to provide a platform for a full spectrum of contemporary productions ranging from new takes on the classics to the avant-garde, from Bach to modern dance, from jazz to experimental theatre. Based at Royce Hall and other University sites,  CAP-UCLA attracts diverse audiences to eclectic programs that open new vistas and capture the imagination.  UCLA provides the venues, private donations fund the programs and the public pays the price of admission.    CAP-UCLA also brings together the campus community (faculty and students) together with the greater community–enriching both.

Investment in the creative arts is like investment in pure research.  We don’t know exactly what  is going to happen,  but we do know that great things will come out of it.  Experimentation and thinking outside the box produce hit and miss results, but are essential to taking the next big steps in science, technology and culture.  As CAP-UCLA’s Executive Director Kristy Edmunds has observed, there are many performers, but it is the artist who breaks new ground and defines the future.

As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s death, we are reminded that one of his and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy’s signature causes.  “Taking advantage of artists to inspire national opinion,” wrote Los Angeles Times critic Mark Swed, “the Kennedy White House made art glamorous.  In return, art became a crucial factor in the new Camelot.”

As lawmakers consider funding priorities, they would do well to consider what relatively modest funding of the arts can do to lift our spirits and enrich our future.  When it comes to public arts funding, we need a lot less Scrooge and a lot more Dickens.

Alan Schwartz is a Southern California businessman and investor, who is actively involved in civic affairs.  He is Immediate Past Chair of the Royce Center Circle–the support organization for CAP-UCLA,  the University’s contemporary arts group.