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Surprising support for the arts

PEOPLE who govern have always had an interest in those who create. Artists, composers, and craftsmen have served kings, emperors, and, yes, dictators. Their work gave style, class, even identity, to a regime. That tradition continues in modern democracies - though it tends to rise and fall with prevailing economic and political winds. Given the strong gusts of fiscal conservatism in the United States right now, one might be surprised to find out that in fact, the 50 states and various territories are doing pretty well by their artists.

A publication of the National Governors' Association points out that state arts agencies have grown from a pioneering handful 20 years ago to an accepted part of government. Each state appropriates funds for arts education, support for artists, and related purposes. More states now offer artists direct grants, with no requirements to produce specific pieces.

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Arts budgets are tiny by comparison with other state expenditures - ranging from $197,600 year in Idaho to over $54 million in New York. But they've been growing more than 10 percent a year for the last two years, and they are enough to help keep many artists in business. So-called ``percentage for art'' ordinances help, too. These laws, which are in effect in more than 100 jurisdictions, set aside 1 percent of the cost of constructing or renovating a public building for the acquisition of art.

Of course, governmental interest in the arts varies widely. The big states spend the most, but per capita expenditures are really more telling. The District of Columbia, leads with $5.66 per resident; Hawaii has $3.67. The tiny Marianas Islands are way up there with $3.04. California chimes in with 50 cents; Mississippi brings up the rear with 16 cents.

Why should government help artists earn a living? Perhaps because artists help society keep breathing, providing the fresh air of new ideas and new ways of viewing ourselves.

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