Should America Increase, Not Decrease, its Arts Budget?

Should America Increase, Not Decrease, its Arts Budget?

“We can’t afford it!” Insert the frothing face of the Republican congressperson of your choice above that phrase and you have a pretty comprehensive picture of the current debate in the U.S. House of Representatives over budgeting for U.S. cultural institutions. The House Appropriations Committee’s proposed fiscal 2014 budget outlines 19% overall cuts for the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies, which includes everything from national parks to museums such as the National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian Institution (whose “castle” is shown above) as well as organizations such as the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Before we storm the cultural castle and tear down the arts, however, it might be worthwhile to consider what’s going on across the pond in England, where an argument was successfully made before austerity-minded government monetary gatekeepers that we can’t afford NOT to support the arts—not just from an aesthetic perspective, but also from a dollars and cents economic perspective. The question then becomes, should America increase, not decrease, its arts budget?


Although the budget still faces tough passage in the senate, the proposed cuts to cultural organizations announce a definite policy shift. The Smithsonian would receive $155 million USD less and the National Gallery of Art would receive $24.5 million USD less as part of the standard 19% reduction rate. The NEA and NEH, however, decades-long targets of American conservatives, would both face 49% reductions in federal funding. Although Mitt Romney lost the last presidential election, his hope to end Big Bird lives on. This budget might not kill PBS and similar programs, but it will at the very least cut them in half.

When British Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport Maria Miller made her stand for the public funding for the arts in the UK last April, she spoke on cultural “turf” (the British Museum), but she spoke in the language of economists and deficit-conscious politicians. In a keynote address titled “Testing Times: Fighting Culture’s Corner in an Age of Austerity,” Miller deftly walked a rhetorical tightrope in claiming that, although not “every sinew of effort and artistic endeavour needs to be strained to bring in turnover and profit, [since] that is neither appealing nor sensible to approach it in that way,… a proper grasp of the potential economic impact of culture would serve us all well.” With a slew of statistics in her favor, Miller showed that the arts in Britain contribute significantly to the tourist business, with that economic impact rippling out into the economy in terms of jobs both in the arts directly and in peripheral industries (hotels, restaurants, etc.). Miller argues “that culture should be seen as the standard bearer for our efforts to engage in cultural diplomacy, to develop soft power, and to compete, as a nation, in both trade and investment.” Although she never says the word “brand,” Miller’s essentially calling for Britain to embrace its cultural heritage as a valuable asset and, more importantly, embrace it through government investment.

Most Americans would do a double take upon hearing that Miller’s a member of the British Conservative Party, but “conservative” means very different things on different sides of the Atlantic. Miller not only supports the arts, but also supports same-sex marriage, which would make her a liberal in the United States. Where conservatives on either side of the ocean would agree, however, is that the business of their country is business. By presenting public funding of the arts as a well-placed investment instead of an unnecessary subsidy, Miller got the attention of the British budget makers (and American conservatives, I hope). After Miller’s pitch, British cultural institutions felt only a 5% pinch—still a significant decrease (£21 million), but nothing like the 30% slashing administered as recently as 2010.

But Britain’s different, some might say. Not so fast—according to a 2012 Brookings Institute symposium, the arts could play the same role in the United States as well, if given the chance both financially and philosophically. Miller’s evocation of the “soft power” the arts can provide harks back to the days when the United States saw the arts as a “branding” tool in the Cold War struggle with the USSR for hearts and minds worldwide. American art, especially the free-wheeling Abstract Expressionists, stood as a living testament to American freedom in action. Why not enlist the arts again in today’s War on Terror and win hearts and minds with art rather than arms? With possible gains in the economy and national security as returns from an investment in the arts, what more can an American conservative ask for?

As Miller acknowledges, the idea of museums and art organizations as profit centers must always be balanced with aesthetic concerns. When museums focus entirely on the bottom line, they can lose sight of their equally important mission to act as custodians of civilization, including the art that doesn’t bring in the bucks but still preserves something of significance for humanity. Detroit’s current economic woes have turned its own museum into a possible source of revenue in the worst possible way as a fire sale for short-term relief, but a long-term economic view would recognize our museums in America as assets worth investing both our money and our belief in.

[If you would like to exercise your democratic rights as an American citizen and insert yourself into this debate, you can send a letter to your congressperson or senator using the Americans for the Artssample letter as a good start.]

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
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  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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Credit: Pixabay
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Credit: Hans Hillewaert via Wikicommons
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