Starting again in January I will be posting more regularly to this blog. I haven't written much since last June, and I think I have spent long enough recharging my batteries. Immediately after it is published in the Burlington (VT) Free Press, I will post my first blog of 2012 in this space. Thereafter, I hope to push out a new post every couple of weeks.
The Vermont Arts Council, in the meantime, has been posting some really wonderful pieces by Council staff in Artmail.
Happy Holidays, everyone!
Monday, August 29, 2011
It had been my intention to conclude my eight-week hiatus from blogging by crafting an essay that would respond to all the national issues that have been pressing upon the arts all summer long. From macro issues, like Climate Change and the assault on public arts financing in places like Kansas, to micro issues, like how kids are engaging in creativity through their smart phones, it has been a summer of significant, blog-worthy events.
Hurricane Irene, in less than 24 hours, has changed everything.
First, my heart goes out to communities like Brattleboro, Rutland, Wilmington, Grafton, Bennington, Brandon, Waterbury, Woodstock, Quechee, and Richmond. From large towns to tiny hamlets, from major arteries, like Rtes 4, 7, and 9 to small nameless dirt roads in more than half of its counties, Vermont is reeling from the effects of Irene’s rain.
Certainly, one of the hardest hit towns is Brattleboro. The photos alone are enough to make one cry.
Vermont, however, is resilient. By noon today, the New England Youth Theater posted, “We're very optimistic! We will put a flood info page on the website as soon as we can, and we'll keep you updated on how you can help! Classes will still go 9/12!”
This from an organization that, less than 24 hours ago, had several feet of water in its lobby…
So all we can do is do all we can. To start with, we need to inventory as much of our cultural infrastructure to determine how bad things are so we can start prioritizing our response. If you are associated with any cultural facility that was affected by Irene, please let us know what its/your status is by clicking here. Please include a couple of pictures as well.
During the next few weeks, Council staff and trustees will be touring the state. We’re going to try to get to as many locations as we can and make sure that any state response that includes FEMA, DOT, or other appropriate federal and state agencies, includes our arts and cultural businesses as well. By the way, this inventory should also include galleries, artist studios (especially where the studio has a commercial presence in a town), and non-traditional venues like farmers markets.
Finally, here are a couple of resources (CERF+ and American Institute for Conservation) for those of you with immediate needs.
Good luck, and please remember to reach out to your neighbors. It’s what brings out the best in us all.
Tuesday, June 21, 2011
A few days before Father’s Day I received a package from my father. It was a book titled “Dancing with the Queen, Marching with King”—his memoir of a life spent in public service. The title is a reference to his two most memorable life experiences: his participation in Martin Luther King’s famous march from Selma to Montgomery in March of 1965 as one of the two official NY delegates (and one of only 13 white people to go the whole distance); and his foxtrot with the 26-year-old Queen Elizabeth at the opening of the new American embassy in London in 1953.
Normally I’m not a big fan of memoirs, but for the past few days I have been simply unable to put this one down. I have always loved and admired my father, but until this past week, I have never had a clue as to what he did during the day when he left our house at 7:30 in the morning. I knew what his job titles were, but I never knew of his role in quelling the Rochester (NY) riots in the 1950s; of his opening up the Erie Canal to recreation; or compelling Cardinal Spellman of New York to include Black marching bands in the St. Patrick’s Day parade for the first time. For all its flaws (some technical and a few narrative), this book has given me not just a glimpse, but a real hard stare into my father’s career, a career of which he is justifiably proud.
It has made me think of the kinds of questions my own children will be asked by their children about their grandfather (me). What did he do Dad? Why did he choose to be an arts administrator? How did he end up with that as a career?
Normally when I’m asked these questions by people networking for a new job or interested in a career change, I demur. But my father’s memoir has given me reason to be a bit more forthcoming because as I age, I remember details less and less. I need to put some of this stuff on paper before it disappears completely. I’ve thought of a title for my memoir, though. It’s called “A Few New Positions.”
I can only bring up brief episodes as being formative: such as the time my mother signed me up for an art class when I was in 8th grade that turned out to be a life-modeling class, complete with fully nude models (my friends were so-o-o-o jealous!); and another time when a bunch of us were recruited to be extras in a film being shot at the Brooklyn waterfront. When the film was released two years later, I went to it at the CineLido East on 59th Street with my mother, both of us brimming with anticipation. It turned out to be a soft-core porno flick and we sat in mortified silence through the entire thing. Neither of us spoke when it ended. We couldn’t even look at each other. About halfway home, at 2nd Avenue and 60th Street, my mother finally cleared her throat and said, “Well, Alexander, I guess you learned a few new positions, eh…?”
The far more important (though possibly less interesting) episodes that shaped my career in the arts involve a host of players, some world-renowned, some complete unknowns. There are many stories, some involving priceless punch-lines, others involving staggering examples of bravery or stupidity. Of the latter, the one that comes to mind first and foremost involves a former boss.
I was hired on a two year contract and at my first formal review I was told by him: You work well with the staff that reports to you, you get along well with your peers in other departments. But you have one major problem. Shortly after you started work here, you got married and then six months later bought a house. People look at that and say, ‘there is someone who is too ambitious.’ People don’t like people who are ambitious. It makes them nervous.
By the time my contract wasn’t renewed 18 months later I had amassed an entire notebook of notes with back-up tapes of similar conversations, and my boss’s boss, grateful to avoid a lawsuit, allowed me to remain on staff until I found another position.
I share this story because throughout my career in the arts, there have been many times when I have, to quote my mother, “learned a few new positions” quite suddenly. All have been a bit scary (no one likes being “between opportunities”), but I can assure you none has been as painfully unpleasant as sitting through that film with Mom at 13 years old. If I could survive that, I could survive anything…
Monday, June 6, 2011
A couple of weeks ago, before all the brouhaha hit the Kansas Arts Commission, I attended the Creative Communities Exchange at MassMOCA in North Adams, MA. What a difference a 13 years makes! Hosted by the New England Foundation for the Arts (NEFA) and Berkshire Creative, it was a two-day celebration of New England’s creative economy in a location that has become synonymous with the term.
In the summer of 1998 at Tanglewood, then-Boston Pops Music Director John Williams gave a talk to about 70 arts and business leaders from around New England. The arts community had been through a major national crisis a few years earlier, the result of the Sen. Helms-inspired, Speaker Newt Gingrich-led Congressional effort to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts. John Williams presented a concept that had for a few years been gaining traction in Europe. There was a new force at work in our communities, one that most people were familiar with, but that was difficult to define and measure by most economic theorists and policy analysts.
Williams called it the “Creative Economy.” To paraphrase his words, he said, the Creative Economy was what happens to a place when the arts are encouraged to thrive. Not only is there an immediate and measurable economic benefit when public dollars are invested in the arts, but there is a far more lasting, though less easy to measure, improvement in the quality of life in a place. People living in a creative community tend to care more about the aesthetics of their built spaces. They care more about the quality of their schools. They care more about the degree to which school-children are engaged in school and civic life. They tend to trust the social contract that is implicit in the relationship between taxation and social services. They tend to shop locally and support their own community’s efforts at revitalization.
At the time, the Berkshires had ridden out the economic downturns of the mid-1980s and early 1990s fairly well and, with the notable exception of Pittsfield (the county seat), had little difficulty with its recovery. Why? Because the significant presence of the arts throughout the length and breadth of the county was attracting visitors, wealthy second home-owners, and—most tellingly—entrepreneurs who, with a modem and a keyboard, could build their start-up from anywhere in the country so why NOT start up in the Berkshires? From Great Barrington to Williamstown, from West Stockbridge to Otis, Berkshire County boasted nearly the same number of arts organizations in all of Vermont, and some of them were among the most prestigious organizations of their kind in the world. Collectively, they were an economic developer’s dream.
Today, 13 years later, even Pittsfield has joined its sister communities in Berkshire County and is, as a result of its mayor's eight-year commitment to investing in the arts, well on the road to recovery.
It was necessary, Maestro Williams concluded, for business and industry in New England, to understand the relationships that exist between and among all the sectors (public, private, and nonprofit) to support the Creative Economy as it grows and develops throughout the region. Over the years different states, and even different regions within states, developed their own particular “brand” of Creative Economy.
In Vermont, for example, most people think of the Creative Economy in terms of value-added agricultural food-products that are intimately connected to Vermont’s identity as a rural, slow-foods-oriented area. In Boston and Providence, the Creative Economy is more closely identified with the technology industries—particularly in the areas of medical and entertainment services.
Higher education was increasingly recognized for its role in shaping the 21st century workforce, and it, in turn, began to sound the alarm to policy-makers about the our K-12 school system and its inability to prepare our children for those demands.
In all, a lot of great work has occurred in the 13 years since the term took root in New England’s fertile soil. Two are worth mentioning.
First is MassMOCA itself. We visited the newly-reopened converted mill in North Adams 13 years ago and while the museum was magnificent, the town of North Adams itself hadn’t quite caught up to the changes that were happening. Now, it is safe to say, North Adams has made serious headway. There were at least four restaurants between the Holiday Inn and the museum itself about 2 blocks away, and numerous galleries, studios, and small businesses dotting the downtown as well as a new (or apparently revitalized) Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. The art at Mass MOCA was amazing (as usual) but it was no more amazing, from my perspective, than the town itself.
The second was the award given to Vermont’s own Robert McBride and RAMP (Rockingham Art and Museum Project) during the gathering. With the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Chair Rocco Landesman in attendance, and in front of more than 250 professionals from all over New England, Robert received the first “Creative Economy Award” presented by the NEFA. Robert has been laboring for nearly 20 years in Bellows Falls, Vermont, to restore the center of Bellows Falls using the arts as a catalyst for business development and community revitalization. That he was recognized in this setting, by a group of 250 of his closest professional colleagues was an honor of great significance for him and for Vermont. Congratulations (again!) to Robert and his partners in the town of Rockingham and the Village of Bellows Falls. It is a well-deserved honor.
Best of all was what Robert said as he accepted the award.
“If you have creative people around the table with you, you’ll do creative things. If you have whiney people around the table, you’ll do whiney things. Ask yourself, what kind of table would you like to be at?”
Well put, Robert….
Wednesday, May 25, 2011
May 25, 2011
The Honorable Sam Brownback
Governor of Kansas
Dear Governor Brownback,
I have been following with great interest your efforts to remove government support from the Kansas Arts Commission and to re-establish it as an independent, non-profit agency, with the expectation that doing so will relieve your administration of the responsibility of allocating taxpayer funds to match federal funds from the National Endowment for the Arts. The budget now awaits your signature and there is a great deal of concern that you will use your line-item veto to effectively abolish the Commission which, I understand, a bipartisan coalition in the Kansas Senate representing a broad cross-section of Kansas citizens hopes you will not do.
It is neither my place nor my intention to engage in the political discourse of your state. However, since our small agency has been frequently singled out by your administration as an example of a nonprofit state arts agency that is thriving without, as the media has reported it, the benefit of state investment I am compelled to weigh in and set the record straight on just three points.
First, in Vermont our nonprofit state arts agency is effective only BECAUSE there is significant state investment in our work. Without a State appropriation of just over $500,000 we would be unable to provide the professional development services, educational outreach to underserved communities, accessibility services to hundreds of historic cultural venues that were built long before the passage of the ADA, and a host of other grants that support our creative sector.
Second, without State support we would be forced to raise more than half million dollars (to match our Federal grant from the National Endowment for the Arts) from the private sector—an activity that would put us in direct competition with the very cultural institutions that our mission requires us to support. In addition, our largest grant program (Cultural Facilities), not only provides significant improvements to our historical and cultural institutions in the area of accessibility, the funds we award employ hundreds of carpenters, bricklayers, plumbers, electricians and other blue-collar workers that are, along with artists and teachers, the life-blood of our communities.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, every State SHOULD invest in the arts sector simply because it makes good economic sense. One of our most conservative policy analysts looked at state and local tax revenues that flowed to state and municipal coffers from our very narrowly-defined arts sector in Vermont. Income taxes paid by artists, arts administrators and independent arts contractors, as well as the long-established IMPLAN economic modeling analysis on just the nonprofit arts institutions in the state, reveal a total return of $19.45 million on a combined investment of $2.5 million, which includes our $500k appropriation. This annual ROI of 775% is even more astonishing since virtually all of Vermont’s state tourism dollars promote skiing, outdoor recreation, fall foliage, maple syrup, and artisanal food preparation and service, NOT art and culture—a circumstance which, I am happy to say, is going to change starting this summer.
Our legislature is getting more and more comfortable with thinking of the work we do as expanding the revenue base of our state, not increasing the expenses that our citizen taxpayers must bear. Our sector provides good jobs. It adds enormous social and civic value to our communities. It improves the relationship that young people have with their schools and communities. And it serves as a powerful attraction to entrepreneurs seeking to locate their new businesses in a creative, vital community setting. The “creative economy” is real and it is thriving here in Vermont. I believe that all these arguments are relevant to making the case for keeping the Kansas Arts Commission on sound financial, PUBLIC footing.
With great respect for you and for the wonderful citizens of Kansas, I am
Alexander L. Aldrich
Vermont Arts Council
"Inspiring a Creative State..."
Tuesday, May 10, 2011
About three weeks ago a chicken established itself next to the Vermont State House, taking up residence in a pine-tree adjacent to the west entrance. Within a few short days, she became an unofficial State House mascot, received lots of tasty handouts from passers-by consisting mostly, I suspect, of the staff of the Abbey Group who manage the State House cafeteria, and in general providing a welcome break from the far weightier issues being hammered out inside the building. Bob, the parking lot security attendant, showed me her roost and pointed out the can of rainwater and the handful of straw nearby in case she felt like nesting.
A few days ago word came down from the State House…the chicken was to be removed by the close of business; captured and sent to live out the remainder of its days on a local farm.
I have two reactions to this.
First, why remove the chicken? She’s clearly doing no harm to anyone at the State House. She has provided a disproportionate amount more levity and good will than almost any other living thing within, say, a couple hundred yards. And if the people caring for her remain vigilant, they may, from time to time, be rewarded for their kindness with a really tasty, organic, free-range egg.
Should she, in due course, suffer a Darwinian event, well—at least it won’t have been because she skied out of bounds at Killington or waded into the swollen Winooski and couldn’t be located despite a massive search-and-rescue effort by local authorities. This is a bird that, unlike Pete the Moose, was born domesticated and later, through no fault of her own, became wild.
Like Pete, the chicken has captured the fancy of many in the State House. In fact, she now even has a name: Henrietta Josephine—Josephine for short (confirmed by my esteemed colleague David Schutz, the State House Curator).
Going from the philosophical to the practical is my second reaction: good luck with that! As I stood with Bob the parking lot attendant hearing about Josephine, a security officer passed by and muttered under his breath, “give me five seconds and the chicken problem is solved,” as he meaningfully patted his holstered weapon.
Laughing I asked if he could use a taser instead to which he replied, “What, you want it roasted, too?!”
Nothing like a Vermont sense of humor…
Guns, tasers, rocket-launched nets, and trappers aside, it’s going to be darn near impossible to get near that chicken. Unless you get them accustomed to a coop, and unless it’s after dark when they have gone to roost, chickens are almost impossible to catch once they have “gone rogue.”
I truly hope Josephine enjoys her freedom now that she has won it, living off a few hand-outs from the folks in the State House and the occasional private citizen. And since this is a column about the arts, I normally draw an appropriate arts analogy to fit the circumstances. But I’ll let you have the fun of doing that.
I’m content with knowing that this particular chicken crossed the road to enjoy the hospitality of the Vermont State House. That, at least, is something all Vermonters, avian or otherwise, can generally count on.
Tuesday, April 26, 2011
On a recent trip to Washington DC I had to pause in front of a Metro card machine to decipher its instructions. As I pulled several bills from my wallet I became aware of a soft-spoken man standing a few feet away, quietly intoning “45 cents, folks. That’s all I need. It’s not a hand out, I just need to get home and I don’t have the right change. Spare 45 cents? Anybody? Please?...”
Having lived in most of the major cities on the eastern seaboard, I was not buying his act. I had seen too many hustlers and homeless people looking for an easy mark, and this guy was perfectly positioned at a spot where out-of-towners are most likely to stand for a few minutes with money in their hands figuring out, like I was, how to buy a Metro card.
Perhaps a dozen people were in the vicinity, all doing what I was doing, and as we all finished our business with the machines, the man suddenly squatted next to his bag, facing away from us, lifted both hands up next to his ears and noiselessly started to shake them. He realized that none of us were going to help him. Still shaking, and in his own private world of humiliation and embarrassment, he emitted a quiet keening sound as I, with a fresh Metro card safely in hand, turned from the machine to head through the turnstiles.
In that moment I realized that whatever else might be going on, this man really was desperate. He needed 45 cents. His life had been reduced to this almost insignificant equation and the look on his face as he stared at his bag, shaking with fear, anger, and frustration pierced my detachment like nothing has in a long time.
The fairy tale ending to this story is, having given him some money, I proceed onto the Metro feeling virtuous and the guy purchases his ticket and makes it home in time for his daughter’s birthday party.
Instead, I gave the guy a dollar, received his heartfelt thanks, got onto the Metro and experienced a tidal wave of anger. I felt that the entire encounter was an allegory for the arts in this country. The arts sector is the unknown man in the subway looking for legitimacy and support from his fellow travelers. The arts sector is the unknown man in the subway with a bag full of ideas, of projects, of potential, all waiting to be realized. The arts sector is the unknown man in the subway in need of a few pennies more to help reach a place that other travelers will only dream of. The arts sector is the unknown man kneeling in the subway shaking with sorrow, fear, and a little rage at the indifference of society.
I shared this story with a friend. He pointed out that the real lesson to be drawn from this encounter was that, in reality, someone (me) had intervened and bailed the guy out—a perfect lesson in current political theory. Let things get desperate enough and the private sector will step up and save the day.
Except, I argued back, that in this case, it wasn’t the “private sector” that stepped up and saved the day; it was me—a public servant. Moreover, it was a public servant who watched as literally dozens of “private sector citizens” walked past and ignored the man’s pleas; who took the extra moment to process the look on the man’s face; who gauged that one man’s private torment, internalized it, and who finally reached into his wallet to give the man a dollar. Did I feel virtuous? Heck no.
What’s going to happen to the next person who needs 45 cents if the public sector isn’t around? How will she fare? And the person after her…? And the one after him…?
We are going in the wrong direction. The public sector is being made out to be the enemy of progress. And the need for the arts and humanities (not to mention human services, medical care, and social security) is greater than ever.
And yet… the overpowering message coming from Washington DC still is to cut taxes and cut spending…to ignore the plight of the bereft man at the Metro card machine.
Pushing this allegory to its logical conclusion I considered how the unknown man in the subway who represents the arts sector will fare next year when he again lacks the 45 cents he needs to change the world. What can this man expect from the public sector, represented by National Endowment for the Arts?
About 40 cents.
Whose helping hand will it be next time?
Monday, April 11, 2011
The past couple of weeks have been crammed with arts advocacy-related activities. In Vermont more than 50 advocates descended on the State House for the day to make sure that the arts were not forgotten in our policy-makers’ zeal to deliver a balanced budget to the Governor for signing. While I will not comment on any specific matter that is still in play, I think it is appropriate to share one brief story from that day.
Surrounded on all sides by hundreds of people pressing in to make contact during the legislative free-for-all that is the lunch hour in the State House Cafeteria, I overheard two senators discussing the appropriations process with a constituent. “Sure,” one of them said, “the subject of whether we could afford to support the arts in this climate of deep cuts to needed human services came up. But then we all looked at each other and I said, ‘I wouldn’t want to live in a place that didn’t support art and culture.’”
I’m glad I live in Vermont. Contrast this attitude towards the arts in Vermont to what is still unfolding (some say unraveling) in our nation’s capital.
I always look forward to spending a couple of days in DC with 2500 of my fellow travelers who descend first on the Kennedy Center for the Monday evening “Nancy Hanks Lecture on the Arts” followed by a day-long program on Capitol Hill where, each year we have the pleasure of meeting with our AMAZING Vermont delegation. This year, the program was enhanced by a special White House Briefing in the Old Executive Office Building, just off the West Wing of the White House.
In this setting we were treated to a parade of four or five mid-level and senior policy advisors to the President who all assured us how much they treasured the role that the arts play in their daily lives and in their collective priorities as policy-shapers. There was only one problem.
For all their talk touting the President’s strong support for the arts as demonstrated by his first-of-a-kind campaign policy statement on the arts, and for all the posturing they were doing in front of us, their deeds stood in stark contrast to their words. As Americans for the Arts CEO Bob Lynch put it: “How can you ask us to celebrate the President’s support for the Arts when a) his recommendation for the National Endowment for the Arts is disproportionately less than almost every other agency, and b) when most of us who believe in the power and effectiveness of the arts feel like they gave at the office back in 1996 when the NEA suffered a 40% cut?”
After several minutes of hemming and hawing , one of the senior policy analysts stood in front of all of us at the White House Briefing and finally admitted to Bob Lynch: “We just don’t have a good answer for you right now.”
The reality is that the debate in Washington DC about how to grow our way out of this recession has been taken over by people who appear to lack a basic understanding of how the American government is supposed to function. Worse, the President, whose attempts to charm or manipulate his way to a healthy compromise on this and many other issues, is being met with scorn, derision, and flat out defeat at every turn.
Here is what I believe is the situation:
The combination of tea-party/Conservative office holders in Congress are pushing the House into a position that is basically undermining the ability of the government to actually govern. They intend to eliminate all discretionary funding programs (whose cost, I have heard, constitutes about 12% of this year’s total budget deficit). If they succeed, two things will surely result. One, they will eliminate all types of government support for things that actually RAISE revenues to support needed social and recreational programs (like an affordable and accessible National Park system); and two, even if they succeed in eliminating these cost areas, they STILLwill have 88% of the deficit to contend with!
So what should the President do? First, he should recognize that “compromising from the center” only plays into extremists’ hands. He should use his office to educate Americans about the importance of a strong centralized government. He should use his office to educate Congress (the House, specifically) that limiting itself to only cutting programs, and not to growing programs that deliver revenue and quality of life, is self-defeating. And he should make the case that no country that calls itself civilized should ever be allowed to throw its cultural sector under the bus.
Right-wing, tea-party extremists I have spoken to have no problem supporting the arts. They just don’t want GOVERNMENT to support the arts.
What they seem unable or unwilling to understand is that the cultural sector relies on a very sophisticated support system that has evolved over the years and which is a cornerstone on which most of our major cultural institutions rest. Without small, meaningful investments of public funds, philanthropists frequently are unaware of investment-worthy projects and programs. Without government support of the arts in our public schools, the entire creative sector would, in a few short years, begin to lose its head of steam.
Like I said, I’m glad I live in Vermont…here, at least, politicians from all sides of the aisle seem to understand that cutting alone won’t get the job done.
Friday, April 1, 2011
Monday, March 28, 2011
In mid-July, 1964 a 40-year-old Jim Oakes (who would later be appointed to the Second Circuit Court of Federal Appeals) was a New England organizer for the Rockefeller presidential campaign. As a delegate to the 1964 Republican Convention he was one of many “socially liberal” Republicans who believed in the Republican Party’s historic stands on equality, social justice, and minimal government interference in the lives of its private citizens even while advocating for fiscal responsibility.
The 1964 Republican Convention was no picnic—despite its being held in San Francisco’s rustic-sounding Cow Palace. It is generally accepted that it served as the coming-out party for a new kind of political conservatism, one that would eventually appear to abandon most, if not all, of the lofty ideals that first imbued the party of Abe Lincoln.
Judge Oakes described to me what happened to him at the conclusion of Barry Goldwater’s acceptance speech that warm July 16th in San Francisco.
“I had to leave the room—that huge room with its thousands of young Goldwater Republicans roaring their approval for the turn to the right the party had just taken. I just couldn’t believe it. I walked out into the vestibule at the Cow Palace and stood leaning on the rail overlooking the lobby. After a moment, I became aware of a well-dressed black man, about my age, who was clearly as upset as I was. I asked him what he thought of Goldwater’s speech. He replied ‘my party has abandoned me. It has abandoned my people.’
“I introduced myself to him. He was Jackie Robinson.”
Goldwater lost that election and it would be 16 years before the Conservative Revolution inside the GOP would succeed in finally elevating one of its own, Ronald Reagan, to the White House. And it would be another 16 years after Reagan’s election that neo-conservative political values would touch my profession—the cultural sector—with devastating results.
In the mid-1990s the first campaign of the so-called Culture Wars ended, and the Arts and Humanities were its first major casualties. A significant budget reduction at the Federal level in 1996 placed on the states the extraordinary burden of carrying forward the valuable work of the tiny Federal agencies charged with supporting the cultural legacy of America’s vast creative output. What was at the time considered a near “death blow” reduction of 40% to the National Endowment for the Arts was a significant step in the neo-conservative effort to reshape American culture.
Today (nearly 16 years later again) we find ourselves in the middle of another attack on our cultural support system. Not only is it the clear intent of the conservative Right to deal crippling, if not fatal, blows to the NEA and its sister agencies (the Humanities Endowment and Institute for Museum and Library Services), but also to National Public Radio, National Public Television, and to the “Nation’s Attic”—the venerable Smithsonian Institution.
This time round, however, these attacks from the Right are no longer confined to our Federal institutions. At least a half a dozen states have been trying to cope with similar efforts to disband their public cultural institutions under the guise of “balancing the budget.” For many of us, this effort has resulted in a whole new definition of “March Madness.”
While basketball fans everywhere are savoring (or cursing) the sweet runs of Butler and Virginia Commonwealth University, folks in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Kansas, Nevada, Washington and elsewhere are realizing that a cultural March Madness has gripped their State Houses or Governor’s Mansions.
Despite reams of data showing the positive effects of participating in/studying the arts at school;
Despite hundreds of independent studies showing the significant state and local revenues generated by the arts sector;
Despite literally thousands of independent sources clearly providing credible anecdotal evidence that the arts create and sustain community life; and
Despite the easy-to-verify fact that in most states the total budget for all things “cultural” (Arts, Humanities, Historical Societies, Libraries, etc.) are a tiny fraction of 1% of a state’s General Fund,
NEVERTHELESS, arts and culture are the unequivocal “first thing to go” in our schools and in our state house corridors. It is only a small comfort to know that Vermont is, for now, one of only a handful of exceptions to this trend.
Last week, while New Hampshire headlines were blaring the late-night, closed-door House vote to disallow collective bargaining by state employees, an equally insidious bill succeeded in passing in the House Finance Committee (20-6) to eliminate the New Hampshire Council on the Arts.
Yesterday the paper reported that of the more than 5 million people who filled out their NCAA brackets, only TWO predicted that the final four would include Butler and VCU and not include a single #1 seed. Two people are happy today, while all the rest tear out their hair and tear up their brackets.
Is the same thing going to happen in the arts? Is the conservative Right going to wake up tomorrow happy while millions of Americans from all walks of life will wake up to the despair that results from no longer being able to access the arts and humanities?
Sure, the comparison here is a little bit false. With respect to the NCAA tournament, two people are happy now, but in a few more days, a new basketball champion will be crowned and everyone else on college campuses and communities across America will get back to business as usual.
I only wish I could assure the arts sector (and everyone else, for that matter) of a similar outcome.