In this age of fiscal restraint, one of the easiest targets for spending cuts is the arts. While our politicians do all the dirty work, voters are largely to blame because most of us don't make too much fuss about it. Given the choice between a cultural centre or more hip replacements, it's usually not a contest.
But economically, we're making a mistake. There are several reasons why investing in culture is an economic imperative.
The first is that culture – including both arts and amateur sports – can mitigate the ups and downs of other industries. More diversity is healthy for any economy. Artists and athletes pay taxes, and their spending causes a multiplier effect throughout the economy. This is the argument offered by culture advocates, especially when justifying tax-dollar support.
While this is true, it's not the strongest economic case for public financing for arts and culture. Governments could also hire people to dig holes and then fill them again. The hole diggers would also pay taxes and their spending would have the same multiplier effect. But their labour would be pointless.
A better reason why the economy needs a strong cultural scene is that it helps to attract and retain labour. This is especially important for cities trying to draw smart professionals from around the world. The best and brightest workers are global citizens, and if they (or their families) are not pleased with the cultural amenities, they won't come. Calgary, where I live, is a perfect example: world-class fly fishing and a great rodeo will attract some people, but without fantastic arts and sports amenities, the pool of willing migrants would be shallow. Calgary's municipal government understands this and investing in culture is non-negotiable.
The third reason, however, is the most important. To become the creative, innovative and imaginative citizens that our companies and governments want us to be, Canadians need to willingly expose themselves to new ideas. A vibrant arts and culture community is the easiest way to make this possible.
American neuroscientist Gregory Berns, in the introduction to his 2008 book Iconoclast, wrote: "To see things differently than other people, the most effective solution is to bombard the brain with things it has never encountered before." Living and travelling abroad is a great way to do this, but for most of us that isn't a practical reality. Arts and culture on our home turf offer us the chance to "bombard" our brain with new stimulus without leaving town.
The important part, as Dr. Berns puts it, is to concentrate on things your brain has never encountered before. If you're an opera fan, going to see opera season after season will be enjoyable, but you won't reap the creative benefits that come from exposure to other things. Maybe you need to skip the next performance of Don Giovanni and take in some indie rock. Or if you're a hockey nut, turn off the game one night and take in an exhibit of contemporary visual art. You're not required to enjoy an unfamiliar art or sport (although if you go with an open mind, you'll be surprised). The point is to purposely take it in, absorb what's going on, and let your mind be bombarded. It gets the brain's neurons firing in different ways.
This is where the economy benefits. Canadians need to keep up with global competitors, but we're only as good as our last creative idea. If we want to truly be a country of innovators – looking for new products, discovering environmentally responsible ways to extract resources, finding efficiencies in manufacturing – we need to be creative. No government tax credit can do it for us.
The reality is that tax dollars are scarce. Cultural workers often act like serfs, begging for crumbs falling from the government's table. They need to start exerting more entrepreneurialism – and consumers need to recognize their value. If Canadians purposefully seek out and support cultural events with their own dollars, artists and athletes will have better financial success.
We have to stop thinking about arts and culture as simply nice-to-haves. They are just as important as well-maintained roads and bridges. By giving us the chance to stimulate our minds with new ideas and experiences, they give us the opportunity to become more creative. Arts and culture are infrastructure for the mind.
Todd Hirsch is the Calgary-based chief economist of ATB Financial and author of The Boiling Frog Dilemma: Saving Canada from Economic Decline.