Ten days ago we sent out an email asking you to send emails to your legislators in support of a $180,000 increase to the Arts Council’s budget that would fund what is currently called our Local Arts Partnership Initiative.
It worked. By the time you read this, more than 300 of you will have generated more than 1300 emails to your respective members of the Vermont House and Senate. In a state where five emails on any given topic is a cause for concern and re-evaluation of priorities on the part of legislators, this response can only be characterized by one word.
As I sat in House Appropriations mark-up last week, it was abundantly clear that I was persona non grata to many members of the committee who had received dozens of these emails. But that’s okay. I’d rather be non grata to them than to all of you. My job is to represent you to them. Their job is to listen to you and pay attention. Trust me. A few individuals may be annoyed, but there is no doubt that they are paying attention.
My job is to make sure that they know how you feel about funding priorities. Their job is to figure out how to juggle those priorities so that everyone is equally happy…or unhappy. For the last few years, our field has been made increasingly and disproportionately unhappy. Why? In part because we were nice and understanding to the Governor and Legislature when times were flush and they were replenishing the Rainy Day funds for…well…rainy days. We were nice and understanding when the dot-com boom went bust. We were nice and understanding when the President’s tax cuts began to require services that were once paid by the federal government to be increasingly paid for by the state. We were nice and understanding when the high cost of health care, education, and the war began to hit taxpayers harder and harder. During the past 10 years I have heard every year that “There’s no money. Where’s the money for this increase going to come from?”
This year is no different, except for one thing. We’re not so nice and understanding anymore. Why? Because so many of our core institutions are one or two payrolls away from closing. Because 20% of them have less than a month’s operating reserve (the standard is six months minimum). Because several of you have closed or merged or “gone dormant.” Because for the second time in the last four years, despite there being “no money” the state has managed to authorize an emergency spending bill on behalf of the ski industry for a $200 thousand plus media blitz in major east coast markets to “help offset a bad January.” And because all this time (since 1991) state government has grown 86% and the Arts Council’s budget has only grown 11%. That’s why we’re so disproportionately unhappy!
The arts are an industry, much like any other. There are nearly 550,000 arts business in the U.S., and those businesses employ 2.7 million Americans. The arts contribute $135 billion to the economy each year. To put those numbers into perspective, the arts create more jobs in our country than the steel industry. (By the way, more information like this is available on the Americans for the Arts website. Arm yourself with knowledge!)
Although we supposedly operate in a free-market system, dominated by a laissez-faire economic philosophy, business and corporate interests receive enormous amounts of government support, publicity, and subsidies. Yet when arts advocates lobby for increased government support for our economic sector, we’re told the arts are a luxury, and the field should fend for itself. Imagine the hue and cry that would go up if government told other industries like textiles, agriculture, and automobiles, that they were on their own, and that they’d better shape up if they wanted to keep their jobs.
I have been told to my face by people who should know better that “Jobs in the arts aren’t good jobs.” I simply smile at them with a pitying look on my face, and reply that they may not be “high-paying jobs but you really can’t touch them for satisfaction and enrichment and their many other quality of life features.” Then I ask them how much they enjoy being Secretary of the Agency of—well, you get the idea.
Here’s what I’d like from you next. Send me a paragraph explaining why, in three sentences or less you actually think your “no good arts job” is in fact a great job! If enough of you respond, I’ll share it with those insensitive clods who still believe that the arts don’t deserve their attention.
In the meantime, keep in touch with your legislators. If you haven’t emailed them yet, there is still time. One request: make sure to include something personal about why this budget increase matters to you. Also, changing the subject header will distinguish it from the other 1300 emails that are already out there. Have fun. You’re doing great. Thank you.