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Akst: Arts, a good investment

Published: Thursday, April 3, 2014 11:44 p.m. CDT • Updated: Monday, April 7, 2014 12:54 p.m. CDT

My brother-in-law’s March 21 announcement was worrisome but not completely a surprise.

Bruce had posted on Facebook that without immediate assistance – unless $50,000 could be raised in 10 days – his company was going under.

His theater company.

“We are about to drown,” Bruce wrote. “The preverbal wolf is at the door. So many great plans are in the works. A very energized board is hard at work on shows and funder-raisers. Our very small staff is doing an impossible job – and doing it well. There isn’t a day goes by that we aren’t writing for grants, selling groups and promoting every program we have planned. I wish that would fix it. It won’t.”

Bruce is artistic director of The Ritz Theatre Co. in Haddon Township, N.J., but The Ritz isn’t really “his” company. He’s had a big role in developing and sustaining the theater (not to mention my sister-in-law, an actress and singer, and their daughter, an actress, singer and dancer … it’s a family business), but the arts belong to all of us.

Belonging, however, also means responsibility and obligation, and America is short on that.

Anyway, The Ritz opened in 1927 as a movie house and vaudevillian performance space. In the 1950s and ‘60s, it featured arty and foreign films. In the 1970s, it showed porn. And in the mid-1980s, my brother-in-law helped relaunch a place that now offers quality plays, musicals, theater camps and concerts. Also, movies are still shown there.

The building itself is on the National Register of Historic Places. Besides family, I feel a connection to The Ritz because I suspect that my grandfather, a vaudevillian comedian and musician, probably performed there.

Bruce put out the word, and it spread. Fans, performers and organizations began giving whatever they could. Some wrote about what a great theater The Ritz is.

One thing was clear: If salvation was to come, it would come from individuals, because public funding for the arts in America is a joke.

A bad joke. On us.

Public funding for the arts comes from three primary sources, according to Grantmakers in the Arts, a national association of private and public funders of art and arts organizations.

Those sources are federal appropriations to the National Endowment for the Arts, legislative appropriations to state arts agencies, and direct expenditures on the arts by local governments.

Fiscal 2013 was a mixed bag, Grantmakers said. State and local governments spent more on the arts, which is great news, but NEA appropriations fell 5 percent, mostly because of sequestration.

Weak. NEA funding is about $146 million, about 1/40 of what Germany spends on arts, according to AlterNet. The U.S. has spent more than 1,600 times that amount bailing out banks and financial institutions, according to Pro Publica.

This, even though in 2012 the arts generated $135.2 billion of economic activity and supported more than 4 million full-time jobs, according to a national study. Every year, the arts generate more than $22 billion in revenue to local, state, and federal governments. Also, research shows art studies close the gap between high- and low-income students and not only improve numerical skills but promote creativity and social development.

By March 31, The Ritz had raised more than $60,000, beating its goal by more than $10,000. That’s happy news, but it’s not a happy ending.

A developed society that claims to value art needs to invest in it.

• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. He also serves as a board member for the Northern Illinois Newspaper Association, www.ninaonline.org. You can reach him at jasondakst@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @jasonakst.

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