As the Pendulum Swings: A Historical Review of the Politics and Policies of the Arts and Aging

Article excerpt

Public support for the arts has remained high. Where is the money?

In reading this issue of Generations, one message rings out loud and dear: Creative expression during the later stages of life not only enhances health and well-being for the individual but also enriches communities. Whether through personal experience, or through documented practice and research, these assertions are well-founded, as shown in this issue and elsewhere in the literature.

Throughout life, diverse populations report similar positive results from participation in the arts. For example, playing classical music for small children and infants, even in utero, enhances healthy brain development by stimulating neural growth and alpha waves, the socalled Mozart effect (Rauscher, Shaw, and Ky, 1995). And, about half of all hospitals in the United States provide arts programs for patients, families, and staff because these programs promote patient healing and recovery (Wikoff and Langan, 1998).

Just as the arts positively affect individuals, so do they enhance community life. The arts and culture have played a crucial role in building American cities and towns, fostering the growth of unique neighborhoods, and binding communities together (Strom, 2001). Today, government and planning officials are rediscovering that the arts and culture breathe life and soul into a community. Urban renewal projects promote the arts and culture because they bring economic vitality, nurture social capital, promote community identity and pride, and serve to address a variety of social issues, from creating new uses for abandoned buildings to providing meaningful activities for young and old alike (Strom, 2001; Fulton and Newman, 2003).

Public support for the arts remains high in opinion polls, and these values have remained fairly stable over the past thirty-five years (Pettit and DiMaggio, 1998). A recent survey in the Portland Tri-County Area of Oregon found that "nine out often participants find arts and culture to be important to the growth and development of their communities (89 percent)" (Riley Research Associates, 2005). Furthermore, "65 percent support having governments include arts and culture funding in other community program budgets; and 32 percent would be likely to make personal contributions to the arts and culture community through a payroll deduction program at their place of work" (Riley Research Associates, 2005). Studies in other statcs and metropolitan areas have yielded similar strong support, both as general principles (e.g., the arts are important to the local economy and are a valuable part of primary education) and financially through government or personal support (Pettit and DiMaggio, 1998).

Given the many documented benefits that the arts and culture bring to individuals and communities, and the substantial public support tor these programs, why aren't then: strong public policies supporting the arts, including dedicated Rinding streams at each level of government? Why have publicly funded arts and cultural organizations, such as the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the Public Broadcasting System (PBS), been singled out by some members of Congress and special interest groups for draconian budget cuts and, in some cases, complete dismantlement?

Similarly, and germane to this analysis, given the assumed political clout of older adults and the success of aging-services programs, why are many of these programs (e.g., the Older Americans Act and subsidized housing) so poorly funded and susceptible to budget cuts?

These and similar questions generate complex and controversial answers but are critical to consider in order to understand the current state of policies and funding for the arts, on one hand, and aging on the other. The questions point to serious underlying issues that must be considered in order to advance efforts for creating and sustaining quality arts programs for older adults. …