Why The $900 Billion Stimulus Won’t Help Design



Lots of people will probably get some nice, salty pork with the coming economic stimulus plan, but designers and arts institutions will likely get shafted if Tom Coburn, the Republican senator from Oklahoma, has any say in the matter. Here’s the amendment to the bill that he’s pushing, ruling out funds for any of the following:

…any casino or other gambling establishment, aquarium, zoo, golf course, swimming pool, stadium, community park, museum, theater, arts center, or highway beautification project, including renovation, remodeling, construction, salaries, furniture, zero-gravity chairs, big screen televisions, beautification, rotating pastel lights, and dry heat saunas.

Aside from pure comedy—apparently Coburn’s idea of the arts looks like an intergalatic disco/sex club, what with the “zero-gravity chairs”, “rotating pastel lights”, and “dry saunas”—the ammendment, as Time magazine points out, is plainly meant to keep arts funding out of the bill—and basically any spending on lasting amenities that make cities alluring.

Granted, few museum projects and arts institutions are “shovel ready,” which should naturally be a key for a stimulus meant to immediately boost the economy. But surely some of them are, given that a host of museums recently had to scale back or cancel expansions due to the economy. And those projects are exactly what you want, in terms of lasting economic effect: Arts projects and cultural centers are one of the most proven and effective strategies for revitalizing urban areas and creating long-term real-estate appreciation.Just ask the folks in Bilbao, Spain, who saw their gritty industrial town become a tourist magnet when Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim museum opened its doors. Some 4,415 jobs pegged to museum-related activities were generated, leading some to dub the boost The Bilbao Effect.

In 2007, a report on the economic impact of art and design in the Los Angeles area found that the creative economy added 894,000 jobs to the region, accounting for $104.5B in revenues, and $3.4B in taxes. That outpaced the traditional economic drivers in the region — international trade and tourism. A similar study in New York found that arts-related activity generated more than $25.7B for the city’s economy. Similar effects have been found in less urban areas as well.

Moreover, design, in particular, is a poster-child of the ideal “knowledge economy” job which can provide a long-term competitive advantage to the U.S. We lose when the design industry has no big-time advocates.


Coburn’s tactic, aside from being short-sighted and philistine, is also dastardly: Because of how the amendment is phrased, anyone who voted for it will be able to say they “voted against casinos” and “big-screen TVs” when they actually voted to slam the door on projects that might revitalize blighted areas.

The image above is proof of the stimulative effect of architecture. It highlights how China is working busily to improve the quality of life in its major cities, and attract investment. The project you see is a just released design for a museum in Dalian. If only American lawmakers were half as receptive to “rotating pastel lights.”

Late Update: Apparently the Coburn ammendment ‘smore comedic references refer to $35,000 that was spent by the CDC to hot-rod its employee gym. That said, I think my general point still stands. As of 9pm EST on Feb 5, we’re still waiting to see if that amendment makes it into the Senate bill.


About the author

Cliff was director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.