Arts are essential and deserve government support | COMMENTARY

This exhibit entitled "Octopus," by Tim Scofield, Kyle Miller and Steve Dalnekoff of Baltimore, was displayed at Light City in Baltimore in 2018.

During a recent webinar, Randy Engstrom, director of the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture described how that organization got its start in 1971. It was the city’s worst recession in its history and Boeing had laid off over 65% of its workforce.

It was in this context that then Mayor Wes Uhlman established the Seattle Arts Commission (and later that year, what would become the Bumbershoot Festival). People asked Mayor Uhlman why charter a local arts agency in the shadow of Seattle’s worst recession. He said: “because we have to give people hope.”


Before COVID-19, Baltimore’s moment was the 2015 uprising after the death of Freddie Gray. When it seemed that nothing else could bring the city back, the arts, in the form of Light City, brought people together and gave them hope that Baltimore was going to be OK. Across the country and right here in Baltimore we are facing disasters that are socially similar to the uprising and as economically challenging as Seattle’s Boeing layoff. What helped to save us then and what will save us now is how we position ourselves for a comeback, and a key component is the arts.

Baltimore City is in the final stages of setting the budget for fiscal year 2021. During taxpayer’s night recently, the first public presentation of the budget was made and we learned that the current revenue outlook is not optimistic — and understandably so. Our educational institutions are shuttered for an undetermined amount of time, many of our residents working in businesses large and small have been laid off or furloughed, events and performances are canceled, and going out anywhere is something we can no longer do


The plan is to cut back to essential spending to sustain the city. Unfortunately, many do not classify government support of the arts as essential. This could not be further from the truth. The lessons of the two examples cited in the beginning of this article demonstrate that the power of the arts can be applied to more than a canvas, a performance or literature. The arts are a fundamental component in the best, but especially in the worst of times. Arts strengthen the social fabric and the economy, they improve individual well-being and drive the robust creative industries Baltimore is so fortunate to have.

According to a 2017 economic impact study conducted by Americans for the Arts:

  • The arts account for nearly $400 million in household income for Baltimore residents.
  • The arts generate at least $28 million in local government revenue and $27 million in revenue for the state of Maryland.
  • Total spending by the nonprofit arts and culture industry in Baltimore exceeded $606 million.
  • The Baltimore Film Office attracts, supports and grows the film industry in Baltimore. Between 2011 and 2019 the film industry created an economic impact of approximately $1 billion in Maryland, hiring about 20,000 Marylanders and supporting around 18,000 Maryland businesses, a large portion of which benefits Baltimore.

When we welcome tourists back to the city of Baltimore, the arts will be what they come to enjoy, and Baltimore will benefit from the $279 million they spend on cultural experiences.

And when students return to the classroom, the arts need to be available for them because the arts help students improve their academic performance. Research shows that regardless of socioeconomic status, students engaged in arts learning have higher GPAs and standardized test scores, and lower dropout rates and higher college attending rates.

The investment Baltimore City makes in the arts in this budget cycle is a commitment to Baltimore’s post COVID-19 comeback story — the arts community is ready; we’ve already gotten started. Over the past two weeks a coalition of artists and arts organizations came together as they never had before to launch the Baltimore Artist Emergency Relief Fund. Within days of announcing the creation of the fund public, private, nonprofits and individuals raised over $100,000 to provide emergency financial support to independent artists in Baltimore. All the money raised stays in our community, sustains the economy and enables the arts and individuals to thrive in our city.

The arts are more than inspiring and beautiful. They are a fundamental component of a healthy community. They are essential. Please advocate for them. Encourage city, state and national support of the arts. Fund them, now and tomorrow, as if Baltimore’s future depends on them.

Donna Drew Sawyer ( is CEO of the Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts.