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So, what about that money for the NEA? Singers, actors and dancers might stimulate audiences, but can they stimulate the economy? NPR's Elizabeth Blair has a little more on that debate.

ELIZABETH BLAIR: The Sacramento Ballet has canceled performances. The administrative staff of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra took a 20 percent pay cut. The Austin Museum of Art is postponing plans for a new museum downtown.

Arts groups, large and small, are hurting just like every other industry. Some are shutting down altogether. The Milwaukee Shakespeare Theater Company closed its doors in October when its main supporter, the Argosy Foundation, cut its funding.

Ms. PAULA SUOZZI (Artistic Director, Milwaukee Shakespeare Theater): I have never filed for unemployment in my life, but now I am officially eating off of the system.

BLAIR: Paula Suozzi was Milwaukee Shakespeare's artistic director. She was one of six full-time people who lost their jobs. Like arts organizations everywhere, the company also employed dozens of freelancers, around 60 actors, designers, directors.

Ms. SUOZZI: It was a lot of people, and it affects the whole economy of, you know, our city.

BLAIR: It's hard to get a handle on exactly how many other arts organizations around the country are in similar straits, but there are enough warning signs that some arts leaders are calling for government help. Michael Kaiser, head of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, says the arts industry is made up of thousands of small organizations.

Mr. MICHAEL KAISER (President, John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts): And so they don't get headlines when they go bankrupt because they might put three people out of work or 10 people out of work, but the arts as a totality in this country employs 5.7 million people. So we're not a small sector of the economy. Our employment levels are important to this economy.

BLAIR: The Obama administration seems to agree. Bill Ivey, director of the Curb Center at Vanderbilt University, was on the president's transition team. He is also a former chair of the NEA. He says the agency is included in the package because it already has a system in place for moving money into the economy.

Mr. BILL IVEY (Director, CURB Center, Vanderbilt University; Former Chairman, NEA): The NEA really can give away money efficiently and effectively and quickly through a very responsible peer reviewed grant-making process.

Mr. BRIAN RIEDL (Senior Policy Analyst, Heritage Foundation): There is absolutely no way that this will stimulate the economy.

BLAIR: Brian Riedl is a senior federal budget analyst for the Heritage Foundation. He believes funding for the NEA, like several other items in the stimulus package, will not grow the economy.

Mr. RIEDL: The only way to increase economic growth is to increase productivity. And government policies that make people and workers more productive will increase productivity. But simply borrowing money out of the economy in order to transfer it to some artists doesn't increase the economy's productivity rate, it doesn't help workers create more goods and services, and it won't create economic growth.

Dr. MARK ROSENTRAUB (Dean, Urban Affairs, Cleveland State University): When you're having massive layoffs of this level, you've got to get people back out to work so there's money to spend.

BLAIR: Mark Rosentraub is dean and professor of urban affairs at Cleveland State University. He says the current stimulus contains both long-term initiatives that will increase productivity, but also short-term projects, like the NEA, that will get money into circulation now.

Dr. ROSENTRAUB: We've got to create and get some projects in the pipeline now. If NEA can deliver some, then that's a good thing. But it doesn't mean that therefore we're not going to put any money into long-term productivity, of course, that has to be done.

BLAIR: Some members of Congress have said that while it may be worthwhile to spend an additional $50 million on the NEA, it does not belong in an emergency stimulus package. Republican Congressman Mike Simpson of Idaho is the ranking member of the interior subcommittee that funds the NEA.

Representative MIKE SIMPSON (Republican, Idaho): None of the subcommittees have had a hearing on any of these appropriations in this bill, including the funding for the arts. Maybe that's an appropriate place to spend it. Maybe there are other places that it could be more effective in terms of economic stimulus.

BLAIR: Whatever happens with the stimulus package, Bill Ivey believes a healthy arts community is important, especially during hard times.

Mr. IVEY: We're not going to be able to think about happiness and quality of life only in terms of the next vacation or the bigger house or the new car. Once we move away from a consumerist view of a high quality of life, once we're forced away from it, arts and culture, creativity, homemade art - those things can begin to come to the fore.

BLAIR: And Bill Ivey hopes government will play a role in making sure that happens. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News, Washington.

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