where the writers are
Writing to Washington D.C. About Arts Funding
Otto H. Kahn

Dear Nancy Pelosi, Barbara Boxer & Diane Feinstein, As Congress considers the American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan, I hope
they will include the arts and culture sector. It is thoughtful economic
policy to invest in our nation's arts infrastructure.
During difficult economic times, the arts are often seen as
superfluous, a luxury, and therefore easily expendable -- its
funding the first to be slashed.
Perhaps now is a good time to recall the words and works of Otto H.
Kahn, a banker in turn-of-the-century Manhattan whose professional status
rivaled that of J.P. Morgan.
It was an era during which no serious financier would dream of
associating himself with something as effete and frivolous as what one of
Kahn's colleagues called "this art nonsense." The general consensus was
that arts patronage (especially for a man of Kahn's stature and social
class) was a dangerously misplaced philanthropy that fell somewhere
between folly and professional suicide.
Kahn believed that music, literature, painting and theatre have the
power to profoundly enrich people's lives. He saw arts patronage as
"enlightened selfishness." He spoke in public about it, wrote about it,
and most importantly, he put his money where his mouth was. In spades. He
was, arguably, the single greatest arts patron this country has ever
known.
Plus, he was willing to take great risks, his largesse extending
from the Metropolitan Opera, "importing" Pavlova & Toscanini to the U.S.,
and contributing to the renovation of the Parthenon to sponsoring many
"unknowns" -- including singer Paul Robeson, filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein,
dancer isadora Duncan, poet Hart Crane, and theatre/industrial designer
Norman Bel Geddes [creator of Futurama at the 1939 NY Worlds' Fair].
In 1916, Kahn hosted a dinner for Manhattan's elite. After more than
a century of "stupendous effort and unparalleled ... economic
advancement," he said, it was time to concentrate on people's moral,
mental and physical well being. To that end, he insisted that it was the
civic responsibility -- the privilege and "great mission" -- of men of
means to subsidize their own future cultural heritage.
Money, he believed, should be used to create a more substantial form
of currency, one that pays immeasurably higher dividends in the long run.
The arts are NOT expendable. Neither can they flourish without
support. In the end, a country's cultural heritage is its legacy.
Best,
Barbara Alexandra Szerlip
Two-time National Endowment for the Arts Fellow