Discriminatory Arts

Posted by John Abodeely, Feb 10, 2009 2 comments

By guest blogger Merryl Goldberg

When I read that my particular profession was singled out (with a few other unlucky professions), in an amendment to the stimulus bill, I was reminded of the discrimination I knew  growing up Jewish in the 60s.  One night my parents came home ecstatic that they had won a raffle to play a round of golf at a club that didn’t let in Jews.  Very soon after they cashed in the raffle, invited other Jewish friends and after playing 17 holes of golf, they danced an enthusiastic hora on the 18th hole.  This memory came back to me as I read the news of the Tom Coburn amendment that bars stimulus funding from going to casinos, aquariums, zoos, golf courses and swimming pools, museums, arts centers, theaters, highway beautification projects, stadiums and parks.

I’m a musician by training, although now I spend nearly all my time raising funds so that everyday kids can have arts as a part of their education.  Currently, I run a Center at a state university in California dedicated to training teachers in arts methods and working with districts to engage in strategic planning and implementation.  I used to perform 75-90 concerts a year and of course I did my fair share of performing at parties, bar mitzvahs, weddings, and so on.  People paid an awful lot to see me sometimes, and I’ve spent quite a lot of time in receptions with sponsors who were willing to underwrite concert series.  I’ve recorded over a dozen CDs, am on several film soundtracks, and can be found in the archives of numerous PBS radio shows.

Performing is a unique career, and one that puts a lot of people with different skills to work.  When I performed at concerts or events, tickets were designed, manufactured, bought and sold through a box office staffed with several individuals, ushers were hired, lighting and sound crews (often a small army in and of themselves) worked the technical aspects, stagehands were backstage to organize the crews, someone created a program, the programs were printed by some company, folks were hired to buy refreshments and sell them, and then clean-up crews would arrive to make the venue ready for the next event.  Web pages, poster, and ads were designed for promoting concerts, and marketing professionals designed and posted our information. There were often security guards at performances.  To get to a venue we would work with our agent (who amassed his own entourage of staffers and publicists), took a flight or two to our destination, rented cars, and stayed in hotel rooms.  We would purchase breakfast and dinner at local establishments, but our contract rider included food backstage.  Therefore, caterers were hired for each of our performances. I bought several performing outfits per year, and visited the dry-cleaners on a regular basis.  I haven’t even delved into the amount of people it takes to organize and carry-out recording sessions.

I bring up this list – which I am sure is not exhaustive, to illustrate a point about the arts.  The arts play a keen role in stimulating the economy no matter how you look it, or whether you like the arts or not.  Groups like Americans for the Arts, the National Governor’s Association, US Conference of Mayors, have done their economic homework.  There is empirical and significant evidence that the arts bolster the economy.  In singling out the arts, Coburn is not making a logical or economic statement.  Instead, he and his colleagues are promoting a notion that the arts are frivolous.  Nothing could be further from the truth in terms of economic impact as well as the importance of the arts to our cultural identity and history.   The arts are a field discriminated against and an easy target when times get tough.  Of course, the arts are also what individuals and communities rely on in these exact same tough times.

What I read in Coburn’s amendment and intention of its supporters is a kind of discrimination focused on a false sense of hierarchy according to profession.  This kind of thinking will not help our economy, is not based on economic studies, and will instead serve to eat at our collective cultural soul.

Merryl Goldberg Ed.D.
Merryl Goldberg is a Professor of Visual and Performing Arts at California State University San Marcos and Director of Center ARTES, a center dedicated to restoring arts to education. Her publications include books, articles, chapters, and editorials on the role of arts in education and culture. She is the recipient of numerous grants including a joint Spencer and John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur grant, Fulbright-Hays Foundation grants, California Arts Council grants, and Department of Education grants relating to arts in the schools.  Prior to entering academia, she recorded numerous CDs and was on the road for 13 years playing the saxophone with the Klezmer Conservatory Band.

2 responses for Discriminatory Arts


February 10, 2009 at 10:48 pm

Thank you, Merryl, for sharing this story and your insights. This in particular struck me:

>What I read in Coburn’s amendment and intention of its supporters is a kind of discrimination focused on a false sense of hierarchy according to profession. This kind of thinking will not help our economy, is not based on economic studies ...

This is spot-on. The question I'm asking myself is, Why? Why do people accept this hierarchy of profession? Is it simply because they aren't aware of the economic evidence? Or, does it go deeper to their values and worldview? I strongly believe we must know the answer to that question if our advocacy efforts are to be successful.

If all we have to do is show Tom Coburn an economic impact study, then we're very lucky. I have a feeling it's more complicated than this.

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