Why President Obama’s Apology to Art Historians Got It All Wrong

President Obama recently stuck his foot in his mouth when he encouraged a group of young people in Wisconsin to consider getting trained in a technical trade because they could earn more “than they might …[with] an art history degree.” Most people seem to be praising his proceeding apology, which came via a handwritten note to art historian Ann Collins Johns. I’ll have to disagree with the majority on this one.

President Obama's handwritten letter to art historian Ann Collins Johns.

It appears, based on his apology, that the president is still missing the point.

In his letter, Obama says that he was “making a point about the jobs market,” not “[making a point about] the value of art history”; however, by separating these points — the jobs market and the value of art history — he shows that he is misinformed about the impact the arts have on the economic landscape of our country and its local communities. The two are interconnected – one of the many values of art history is that it creates a stronger job market.

In his letter, the president referred to art as something he’s enjoyed; something that “helped [him] take in a great deal of joy in [his] life” – but let’s get down to the bare facts. Art isn’t just something pretty to look at in museums. Aside from greater quality of life, the arts as an industry stimulate economic development.  They have the capacity to greatly impact job creation, personal income and government revenue.

According to a 2012 study by Americans for the Arts: “On the national level, these audiences provided $74.1 billion of valuable revenue for local merchants and their communities.”

Attendance at arts events generates income for local businesses, even those not related to art. When someone attends a performance, they often go out to a restaurant first or stay overnight at a hotel after – restaurants, parking garages, hotels and retail stores all generate income from this audience member’s attendance at that performance.

The arts “support 4.13 million full-time jobs and generate $86.68 billion in resident household income.”

An immense amount of work goes into each exhibition, performance and artistic endeavor. Individuals and teams who publicize the show before it’s begun, others who perform in the show and still others who sweep the floors when it’s over all earn an income thanks to the arts – but so do the restaurant owners and hoteliers next door.

The arts help improve other job disciplines as well: They are used to train medical students for improved precision and observation skills. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, scores on observation tests increased among students who participated in the one-day gallery session at the Yale Center for British Art. Smithsonian.com reported that police officers and other law-enforcement officials who attended an educational session at the Metropolitan Museum of Art tailored to their discipline experienced improved deductive observation skills.

Of course, the above examples only demonstrate “jobs market” benefits, which doesn’t necessarily cover heightened emotional pleasure, improved academic performance, enhanced understanding of the world and those who live in it, growth in empathetic feelings, or the increased use of art therapy programs in hospitals due to its healing benefits for sick patients and recovering veterans.

But back to the numbers that may catch Obama’s eye: according to the Americans for the Arts’ study, the local, state and federal governments give out 4 billion dollars to the arts, but collects back in taxes and fees more than $22.3 billion in revenue from the arts.

In all, it’s safe to say that the arts “can lead to an honorable career” as well as stimulate the economic development of its communities – certainly something for President Obama to consider in his next “jobs market” discussion.

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  1. 5 years ago

    Kudos to you for your commentary & facts that paint a much broader & more provocative picture of the ongoing debate about the importance of the arts in every aspect of our society.

  2. 5 years ago
    Mary Alice Franklin

    Thanks, Carolyn!

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