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C200: 1. Art=Sustainability; 2. Art=Money

2011 March 16
by Cheryl dos Remedios

1. Art = Sustainability

Art is core to sustainability. When people sing, dance or act, they draw upon resources within themselves to tell their own stories. Humans are first and foremost storytellers, and this is why advertising is so effective at urging us to consume material goods. Yet artists’ remain immune to the hawking – eschewing lives of perceived security in order to pursue lives of creativity. In the process, as the myth of the “starving artist” reflects, artists learn to be self-sustaining.

If Seattle is to create a sustainable society, we need to shift away from the consumption of material resources and towards the creation of cultural resources. Artists can show us how.

Rarely does a city of Seattle’s size have so many major arts institutions, and likewise, such a thriving independent scene. Seattle’s theatre, dance, music, film, literary art and heritage communities are all nationally renowned. How this came to be is a complex story, but one thread is tied to the creation of the field of Public Art.

In the late 1970’s, King County and Seattle launched Public Art programs that allowed artists to contribute not just objects, but ideas. In doing so, Seattle became a place where artists could receive public funding to create meaningful work, and over time, more and more artists moved to our region creating a critical mass of thinkers. Today, Seattle’s artists are encouraged to take a seat at the table to discuss public policy, and many of our region’s Public Art projects interact with infrastructure, wetlands and other systems.

Art resists interpretation, but if I had to define the concerns of contemporary artists, I would emphasize experiences, meaning, relationships and uncertainty. Without coincidence, these are also the hallmarks of sustainability.

2. Art = Money

Shuffled beneath the “starving artist” myth is the reality that local government funding of the arts is core to our region’s success. In 1971 – when the unemployment rate was 17.5% and Boeing had laid off 65% of its workforce – the Seattle Arts Commission was founded. The “% for Public Art”  programs referenced above soon followed. Yet the “1% for Art” nomenclature indicates a much higher funding level than arts commissions actually receive. Even adding in performing arts, heritage and granting programs, funding levels for arts agencies fall well below 1% of total government expenditures.

“Orthodox micro-economists dismiss concern for artists’ relatively low earnings given their high educational attainment as simply a case of market over-supply,” explains economist Anne Markusen. “In contrast, scientists who are highly subsidized both in higher education and through government research funding . . . are simply more highly valued in our political system at present. . . But vis-à-vis stimulus, artists turn economic orthodoxy on its head. Compared to most other groups of workers, artists are more apt to spend what they make rapidly and on other goods and services in the local economy. . . [Artists’] creativity drives cultural industries—media, publishing, advertising, music, and tourism—that are among the most important US exporters.”

Reviewing a recent Americans for the Arts study, the Urban Land Institute highlights the fact that the arts generate nearly “$30 billion in revenue for federal, state, and local governments every year. When one considers that these three levels of government spend less than $4 billion annually to support the arts, one cannot help but be impressed with the more than seven-to-one leverage.” Locally, a recent ArtsFund study reveals that culture in King County generates $1.75 billion dollars in economic activity; employs more than 29,000 people; and generates nearly $80 million dollars in local tax revenue.

Data filled arguments are required by our modern society to validate expenditures, making economic arguments the most readily available. Yet the 7:1 economic return cited above is indicative of a much more vibrant and complex social structure. Art contributes to environmental sustainability, education, social justice, public health, public safety and quality of life. This menu of benefits is so compelling that we sometimes forget to proclaim the obvious: when we invest in the arts, we receive art.

Art stimulates the economy. Art stimulates humanity.


Cheryl dos Remedios is an artist, activist and public art administrator. She currently serves on the Great City Board, the Arboretum Foundation Board, the Rainier Beach Neighborhood Advisory Committee and the Port of Seattle Art Oversight Committee. She is also organizing aLIVe: a Low Impact Vehicle exploration and Save Our Soul {SOS} Seattle.


Image Credits: The Herbert Bayer Earthwork was commissioned as part of King County’s groundbreaking Earthworks: Land Reclamation as Sculpture symposium in 1979. As staff to the Kent Arts Commission, the author organized the Earthworks 25th Anniversary Celebration in partnership with 4Culture. Brice Maryman’s Chromatic Levy (upper image) traversed Mill Creek, while choreographer/dancer Alex Martin’s site specific performance The Daylight (lower image) literally moved the audience in and out of the steep and curving contours of the park. Pictured (L to R): Sarah Parton, Liz Cortez, Sarah Shira and Monica Mata Gilliam.