Friday, February 26, 2010

On Poetry and Politics

The finals of the 2010 Vermont Poetry Out Loud (POL) recital competition is this Saturday (March 6). With more than 30 schools participating we've had to change our format and add a semifinal round prior to the final round. It should be an incredible day up at the College of Fine Arts in Montpelier.

With the growing popularity of song and dance competition shows on television, Poetry Out Loud may be the closest many Vermont students get to tasting the the nervous energy (call it stage fright) that these shows are so good at turning into high drama (okay, "low drama"). Poetry Out Loud is a competition, with real benefits to the winners, and a great educational outcome for all who participate. And for family members who comprise most of the audience, it's pure theater.

In addition to a cash prize for him/herself and school, the winner of will attend the POL finals in Washington DC under the auspices of the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation. It's like the Scripps-Howard Spelling Bee, only more lyrical. But before the Vermont winner goes to Washington DC in late April, he/she has an earlier commitment... our Annual Arts Advocacy Day on March 17th in Montpelier!

Advocacy is a tricky thing when times are as difficult as they are now. Much of my time is spent talking with (your) legislators about the arts in ways that are by now familiar to everyone who reads this blog.

But here's the real truth...

No one in Montpelier can talk to your legislators the way you can. You are the one with the meaningful story. You are the one with the child who had the incredible arts experience. You are the one who is the legislator's friend or the neighbor or relative. You are the one who presents local talent to the world for the first time, who entices visitors to spend time and money in your (legislators') community. You are the one composing the song, choreographing the dance, recreating the role, capturing the essence of the place in words or images or music in the district your legislators represent.

Your messages have far more meaning than mine because, frankly, yours is the vote that counts.

So, what is your story, and when was the last time you told it?

Talking to your legislators while they are home during the Town Meeting Day break is important. But please come to Montpelier as well--for three reasons that I can think of. A lot of people from all over the state come together in Montpelier, and it's a real morale-booster to see that you are not alone. We all learn from each other, and there are several dozen people who will listen to your pitch and help you refine it. And finally, your legislators will not only see that YOU think its important enough to make the trip, they will see other legislators getting the same treatment. It makes quite an impact.

So please come to Montpelier on the 17th. Let your legislators know you're coming (click HERE for their contact information), and stay to hear a poetry recitation from this year's state POL champ. It will be well worth the visit!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Eat the Peanut Butter!

We are receiving reports from various arts supporters that legislators and newspapers have received letters that target the Vermont Arts Council and a few other small agencies for elimination.

I have read a few of these letters and their basic argument is that, as with household budgets when there is less money available, Government should cut programs (like the Arts Council) until it is operating within its means.

To me this sounds like a contestant on The Biggest Loser being told to eliminate the tablespoon of peanut-butter from his diet instead of addressing his 10-chili-cheese-dog-a-day habit because the peanut butter has, pound for pound, more calories.

Eliminating the peanut butter will, like cutting the Arts Council budget, result in two sure things: the problem won't go away, and worse, without it we will suffer from the lack of some crucial nutrients which our bodies and our society can ill-afford to be without.

The Government is not the same as a Household

The basic flaw with the letters I have read is the assumption that Government functions like a household. Government is supposed to protect its interests and the citizenry (sometimes even from the citizenry itself!), negotiate with foreign countries on behalf of the people, and provide programs and services that are in the people's interest but for which there is no market incentive for investment (like schools and health-care, and teacher's and veteran's retirement programs, all of which are topics that are too big to discuss here!).

A head of household, however, tends to preserve and protect what is dear to him/her, even if it is at the expense of a neighbor or the community-at-large. Nowhere is this behavior more pronounced, its effects more devastatingly felt, than when people charged with acting in the public trust behave instead like individuals bent on preserving and protecting "what's theirs." This is essentially what happened in Washington and on Wall Street during the past five or six years during which regulations were either gutted or ignored. Speculators created high risk/high reward instruments that created fortunes for themselves overnight, and when everything went sour, turned to the Federal Government for a bail-out. So-called public servants protected their own assets at the expense of everyone else.

So here we sit in a recession/depression with private capital more or less dried up, unemployment at a 25-year high, and private enterprise at best, in a state of paralysis. It is very tempting to cut Government spending until we have once again reached the point where our revenue equals or exceeds our expenses; where our annual deficit disappears; where are accumulated national debt starts to decrease.

The problem is that if the Government does this, then unemployment will get much worse and inflation will skyrocket because there are fewer goods and services being produced. Depression in every possible meaning of the world will be the status quo on a scale not seen before...

It seems counter-intuitive to individuals dealing with their own household budgets to say that the best possible way to improve things is for the Government to spend more, but Government is the only player right now who has access to capital.

Government must invest borrowed capital in order to invest in private enterprise to create jobs and restore consumer and market confidence. It is these jobs, these industries that receive this investment that will, eventually, and not without great anxiety, allow us to move towards a recovery.

Arts=Jobs; Arts = Community

State Arts Agencies not only recognize and support vital cultural institutions and artist projects, we partner with a variety of private and public partners to showcase various attractions and festivals that cause huge numbers of visitors and entrepreneurs to come to our state. These visitors spend enormous sums in our shops, restaurants, and hotels. The entrepreneurs start businesses, employ people and contractors, and make positive demands on and contributions to our community's social fabric.

Arts agencies also serve as a catalyst that allows significant amounts of supplemental educational experiences to engage students in our schools, most of which is directly related to the schools' curriculum goals and all of which is directed towards specific performance goals for every student, not the least of which is developing skills for the 21st-century workforce that are highly prized--like collaborative decision-making, public speaking, and creative thinking.

The two most frequently cited reasons why a business chooses to locate in one community over another--all other factors like tax incentives and regulations being equal—are the quality of the schools and the quality of community life, both of which are highly dependent on a thriving arts sector.

Cutting Government’s small investment in the arts, far from improving our economic situation, will actually make if far worse. Not only will the cut place at risk 2000 jobs throughout the state, but the closing of perhaps dozens of our cultural institutions, and the drying up of arts education programs in our schools will make Vermont a significantly less attractive place for people to visit, to invest in new businesses, and to raise families.

So, please, don’t be fooled. Eat the peanut butter. It's good for you. The real threat is those chili-cheese-dogs.

Monday, February 1, 2010

100% Essential

We are lucky to have a President, a Congress, and in Vermont, a Governor and a State Legislature who generally agree that the arts matter. But one legacy of the "Culture Wars" is that many ill-informed media pundits continue to assert that the arts are a luxury. Now, with the economy in the shape it's in, I keep hearing that it is time for all "nonessential government expenditures" to be cut, including the arts.

Let's take a long look at why this would be a huge mistake.

On a macro level:
1) The arts are a huge part of our gross national product. Film, television, video games and music production are collectively considered one of the biggest sectors of our economy--certainly our biggest export. Imagine the artistic output that goes into a film like "Avatar." Now imagine that plot occurring on a planet that looked like the moon and not like the Amazon rainforest. Do you think Avatar would be the second best all-time ticket seller in the history of film? Not a chance.

Now ask yourself a simple question--where did all those artists and musicians and dancers and actors come from? Where were they trained? How did they learn to draw, to compose, to play, to develop plot lines, to use their imaginations to create whole universes outside our comprehension? If we turn off the spigot that fosters and encourages those artists during their childhood years, we will truly create a bleak future for ourselves.

2) The arts generate tourism. As far as I can tell, hardly anyone visited Bilbao, Spain until the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim opened in October of 1997. The same could be said of North Adams, Massachusetts. A depressed milltown opens up MassMOCA (Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art), and voila!--a tourism mecca is born. Mayor Rudy Giuliani of New York tried to cut all public funding for the arts in retaliation for a work put on display at the Brooklyn Museum that he found offensive. He changed his mind when he learned that the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the combined arts groups that comprise Lincoln Center alone generate more tax revenue for the city of New York than the combined professional sports teams operating out of Yankee and Shea stadiums, the Meadowlands, and Madison Square Garden.

On a micro level:
1) Artistic decisions--or aesthetic decisions if you prefer--govern our individual behaviors every day. From deciding what to wear, and what make, model, and color car to drive; to what makes us choose our favorite restaurants and stores, or our favorite neighborhoods when it's time to buy a house and raise our families, how something looks or sounds or complements our personal aesthetic is almost always what causes you to decide to buy or not buy. Who makes all this stuff? And why did you buy the blue sweater and not the green sweater? If life is all about function rather than form, then we would have all evolved to wear the same clothes, drive the same cars, and enjoy the same activities. But form matters, which means design matters, which means the arts matter.

2) The arts exist, in part, to improve the human condition. For many, this is achieved through an exploration of the emotional or psychological connections that art conveys to the viewer. But for others, this is achieved in very concrete terms--in communities that renovate a community performance space (Vergennes, Derby Line, White River Junction and others) which fosters other business to locate nearby; entices good teachers to apply for jobs at the local school; and to provide a sense of place--of community well-being.

Ask yourself, why do you live and work where you do? I remember once asking a friend in DC what it was like to live in Crystal City (a complex of apartment buildings adjacent to National Airport with all its amenities like shopping and dining built underground). As a DC bedroom community it was ideal. Convenient, easy access to everywhere by Metro, and completely weatherproof. The problem, she said, was that it had no soul. It was a man-made moonscape across the river from one of the country's most vibrant cities. If she could have afforded to, she would have moved to DC in a heartbeat.

Most people will agree that responding to Haiti's needs is an essential government expense. So is fixing our own infrastructure and our own economy. Our government needs to figure out how to fund job-creation, learn how to effectively deal with al-Qaeda, the Taliban and other extreme terrorist organizations without killing (and radicalizing) civilians. It needs to reorganize the delivery of affordable health care, and take care of its citizens who have the least capacity for caring for themselves. All of these are essential to restoring our government and our country to its position as a world leader.

Doing so, however, will take a lot of creative thought; a lot of anticipating the problems and rehearsing ways to get around them. It's going to take some creative vision to share what our world will look like after this exhausting and scary period is over. We're not going to do it by just listening to the economists and the militarists and the jihadists. We're going to have to listen the artists as well. They are the most creative problem-solvers and community builders among us.

So...essential? Absolutely! The arts matter now more than ever.