By Nathan C. Martin, The Lens contributing opinion writer |

Culture is to Louisianans what water is to fish. Our public spaces and private lives are utterly infused with forms of expression that make the state unique—our food, architecture, music, costumes, art, and public celebrations, to name a few. They create a cultural environment that is ever-present, enveloping and ubiquitous. We swim through it.

I moved to New Orleans a year and a half ago after finishing graduate school and working in Buenos Aires and Chicago. I chose New Orleans specifically for the city’s vibrant cultural life. A friend piqued my interest by telling me that the city has more culture per capita than any other place in the country, and he was right. The city’s cultural life brought me here and has given me plenty of incentives to stay.

Clearly, I am not alone. In the past five years, New Orleans has witnessed a massive influx of young, educated, passionate people. According to a study by New Geography that tracked the ratio of college graduates gained between 2007 and 2009 by the nation’s 52 largest metropolitan areas, New Orleans ranked a stunning Number One. Young newcomers have added zest to the city’s social, cultural, and economic life and are widely recognized as vital to maintaining the upward trajectory of the city’s post-Katrina recovery.

New Orleans is not for everyone. There are plenty of safer, wealthier, more progressive places with many more amenities and job opportunities, and far less exposure to the natural and man-made disasters that bedevil us. People move here because they see something specific and special, and upon arrival find that participating in our cultural life—whether as creator or consumer—is intoxicating. Culture is our ace in the hole, the asset we offer that no else can top.

Troublingly, that asset is being undermined. The Louisiana legislature has cut statewide funding for the arts dramatically in the past two years, and more of same is expected in the budget process that wraps up this week. As recently as 2007 and 2008, funding through the State Arts Grants and the Decentralized Arts funding programs, essential resources for arts and cultural projects throughout the state, topped $5 million annually. As of mid-June, the House had slashed the outlay for fiscal 2012 to $1.95 million, according to Division of the Arts spokesman Jacques Berry.  And bear in mind that the 2011 budget had already cut the State Arts program by 70 percent and the Decentralized Arts program by 13 percent. The threat is compounded by plans to move the source of some arts funding from the state’s general fund to its tourism fund, where money for creating culture will have to compete with money for marketing it.

The good news is that much of what we most cherish in Louisiana’s culture is  even more entrenched than the dim-witted political instinct to take a knife to arts funding every time the economy sours. Generations-old traditions like jazz, second lines, Mardi Gras Indians, zydeco and parade floats and regalia are inextricably embedded in our way of life and in the tourism economy that draws visitors to the state by the millions. Not without pain and dislocation, these art forms will survive cuts in the state money that has supported their revival after Katrina. But what the defunding could extinguish quite completely are new and innovative forms of expression that keep the cultural landscape on the cutting edge and also refresh the older cultural traditions through interaction with them.

The wave of newcomers continues to wash into New Orleans, and these young, passionate, educated transplants should be recognized as a dynamic boon to the economy, even by people who don’t give a damn about the arts. As in so many other cities, they are the pioneers when it comes to reviving blighted or abandoned neighborhoods. The success of creative industries in which many take part—the film industry, for example, which is booming in large part thanks to state tax incentives—illustrates the economic wisdom of funding the arts. In fact, the statewide arts programs have consistently provided a $6 return on investment for each dollar they receive from the state, making arts funding clearly a sound investment.

A variety of factors will influence whether New Orleans and Louisiana retain the talented, enthusiastic young people recently attracted here, but doing damage to the state’s cultural life is certainly a way to make them go away. If the state legislature continues to make reckless cuts to arts funding, it will do exactly that.

Nathan C. Martin is the editor of Room 220: New Orleans Book and Literary News and a frequent contributor to Pelican Bomb.