"I don't know what would have happened if that teacher hadn't recognized" that was a valid expression, Redford said. "I don't know where my life would have gone."
Redford, Grammy-winning singer John Legend and actress Kerry Washington, who appeared in the movie "Ray," joined arts supporters from across the nation Tuesday for Arts Advocacy Day in Congress. They urged lawmakers to restore funds for the National Endowment for the Arts to the high of $176 million received in 1992.
Republican leaders in Congress slashed arts funds in the mid-1990s and tried to dissolve the NEA. The agency survived, but its budget has not yet rebounded.
In testimony Tuesday, Redford said his own Sundance Institute in Utah and the popular Sundance Film Festival are good examples of the impact of thriving nonprofit arts groups. Sundance was started with the help of an NEA grant in 1981 and now has nearly 1,300 full-time and seasonal employees.
Americans for the Arts, which organized the lobbying effort on Capitol Hill, cited research that shows a 24 percent increase in economic activity and 850,000 new jobs created by arts organizations in the last five years.
"In a time of troubled economies, we are a growth industry," said Robert Lynch, president of Americans for the Arts.
Still, there's a gap between the training provided by schools and the demands of the work force, said Jonathan Spector, chief executive of The Conference Board, which does management and market research for corporations. He said businesses want workers with creative talent, though the arts usually are not a high enough priority in schools.
Redford said arts programs deserve a dramatic increase in public support to the tune of at least $500 million. There's no hope of such money under the current administration, he said, but added that all three major presidential candidates would likely have a stronger commitment to arts funding.
President Bush has proposed a $16 million cut to the arts endowment budget for the 2009 fiscal year. His budget includes $128 million - the same as his request last year - down from about $145 million allocated by Congress in 2008.
Members of Congress and arts advocates decried such cuts amid efforts to tighten the federal budget.
"It simply isn't right to put the whole burden of balancing the budget on these programs that are so important to the American people," said Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash.
Legend, 29, and Washington, 31, were both teenagers during the war over culture funds in Congress. They said their careers depended on their early exposure to music, theater and the fine arts.
"I was surrounded by artists, and I know how important that is," said Legend, who started playing the piano at age 4.