Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Let's Not Sell the Arts Short

What do we teach our children? We teach them that two and two make four, and that Paris is the capital of France. When will we also teach them what they are? -- Pablo Casals

Maybe we have only ourselves to blame.

But when it comes to tallying up (and funding) our society’s needs, the politicians – and the public – find it all too easy to sell the arts short.

And not only in times of fiscal crisis. Year in and year out, in good times and bad, policy makers tend to dismiss the arts as somehow frivolous and unconnected to either the psychic or economic well-being of our people and our communities.

Of course, the numbers tell a different story. And so do the personal observations of those of us who spend our working lives either creating art or making it happen.

But the reality is, we simply haven’t told that story often enough or compellingly enough for others to realize that the arts do matter in vital ways.

There must be a million anecdotes that prove the premise in individual lives.

At my own arts center, I can point to a broadcasting executive who actually moved across the river so he could be nearer to the pottery studios and the community of potters that feed his soul during his hours away from the office.

I can also point to a young boy with few material advantages who took a class (also pottery, as it happens) with us nearly ten years ago, at the suggestion of his baseball coach, who saw him starting down the wrong path.

His teacher was the gifted potter John Visser, who quickly pegged the boy a “genius” and approached me about providing a scholarship to keep him in a class his family couldn’t afford.
It wasn’t long before that boy became a role model in more ways than one for his fellow students, all of them adults, all of them far more affluent than he. Just recently, now a young man attending college, he stopped by again just to visit and say “thanks.”

For me, stories like those pretty much say it all. Art matters—and those of us who witness its power on a regular basis need to share those stories on a regular basis.

But we also need to keep in mind that anecdotes don’t tell the full story, not for the policy makers who have the thankless task of divvying up scarce resources, anyway. At that point, we also need to offer up the numbers that reveal just how great an impact the arts have on our economy, even if that impact is less than obvious at first glance. Fortunately, those numbers are compelling, too, just like the personal stories waiting to be told. And, thanks to the wonderful work of Americans for the Arts (, the statistics are readily available and easily localized to any community.

In New York’s 21st Congressional District, where The Arts Center is located, for example, few people would guess that what Americans for the Arts terms “creative industries” provide as many jobs cumulatively as most of our region’s largest employers.

Last year, the figures show, there were 7,152 people working in the arts in the district in 1,191 “arts businesses.” That, by way of contrast, is more jobs than all but a few of the largest and most recognizable employers bring to the region: according to data from (2003), the federal government employs about 8,000 people here; Albany Medical Center some 5,300; and even GE tops out at about 9,000.

At a time when “job creation” is on the minds politicians and the public alike, there’s one more statistic that jumps off the Americans for the Arts charts. In our district, the number of arts businesses grew by more than 10 percent from 2007 to 2008, and the number of arts employees jumped even more, by 15.09 percent.

To me, that sounds like an industry that merits support, when it comes to public budgets and bailouts.

It also sounds like a story each one of us should be telling to voters and elected officials throughout the year. The economic impact of 7,152 jobs is nothing to sneeze at.

Neither, as I see it anyway, is the impact of an economically disadvantaged boy learning his potential from a slab of clay!

If we don’t get that message out to the people who make the policies, we’ll have only ourselves to blame.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Sharing Art through the Storm

“When you hit a wrong note, it's the next note that makes it good or bad.” -Miles Davis

A music-loving friend of mine swears that one of the greatest concerts he ever attended never took place at all.

Not quite, anyway.

Instead, a violent thunderstorm came pretty much out of nowhere on a summer night, leaving the Saratoga Performing Arts Center without electrical power. The unexpected storm hit just minutes before the Philadelphia Orchestra was set to take the stage along with a guest soloist, the violinist Sarah Chang.

Forty-five minutes later, the audience was still waiting, hoping power would be restored and the concert would get under way. That’s when Chang stepped onto the stage, alone except for her violin and a couple of stagehands equipped with flashlights to illuminate her and her music.

The orchestra remained backstage. But Chang began playing Fritz Kreisler's Recitative and Scherzo.

Maybe the rain was still pounding on the roof and flooding the lawn. Maybe the thunder hadn’t been muted yet by distance. Chances are, though, no one listening that night could tell you there was anything at all in the air except the music.

The performance was brief, but it was delivered with both virtuosic skill and exceptional grace—a sort of “Thank You” card for the audience.

The ovation was huge. Then several thousand music lovers made their way through pooling rainwater and back to their cars.

Maybe the story ends right there. But for me it has a resonance that reaches beyond the moment. The then-20-year-old musician’s respect for the people who had come to hear her music also says something about the essential relationship between artist and audience.

Creating art (even if that means performing before a large audience) is in many ways a solitary and intensely personal pursuit. But the moment a creative work touches someone else, it also becomes a shared experience, a sort of collaboration and even, in some sense, a transfer of ownership.

Maybe Sarah Chang understood that when she offered her music as a gift that night, unamplified and in the near-darkness of a summer evening storm.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Calling for A Secretary of the Arts

The idea isn’t really a new one.

Not for artists and arts administrators, and not even for musician and producer Quincy Jones, who has emerged as the standard-bearer for the cause.

But the concept of establishing a cabinet-level position devoted to our country’s arts and culture has gained a lot of momentum since Jones began pushing it in earnest in the weeks following the presidential election. He started the ball rolling during a November interview on WNYC radio in New York, when he called for the new administration to name a “Secretary of the Arts.”

In short order, others took up the call, notably bassist Jaime Austria, who created a web-based petition to enlist and document popular support for the idea ( ). By one recent count, as many as 150,000 people have signed on so far, and at least 15 organizations have hopped on the bandwagon along with Americans for the Arts to support the effort.

The president’s cabinet, the reasoning goes, is the place all the sectors that, collectively, make up American society come together – education, commerce, transportation, energy, agriculture, and the rest.

And the arts deserve a seat at that table, proponents say, in what is shaping up to be a spirited debate, “Yes, Yes, Yes. . . . This is about a society that recognizes art as important for a strong nation,” is the way one blogger on the Los Angeles Times website put it.

But a nearby posting represented a different view.“At best, such a government office would be a huge waste of money. At worst, government sponsored "culture" will be used for political purposes . . .” it read.

Others express worries about government spending in general, as well as an ideological aversion to “more government.”

“I'm all about the arts -- but THIS IS NOT THE TIME TO ADD TO THE DEFICIT. Hopefully there are enough SMART people who will be realistic about this and stop this senseless push for more spending,” one person wrote.Artists themselves are divided, with some enthusiastic and others raising a wary eyebrow, like this blog writer:

“I am a pianist, organist and composer. . . . I am an advocate of the arts, yet I would NEVER, support something like this—a petition to put control of something so precious as music, art, dance, poetry, and drama in the hands of bureaucrats.”Still, at least 150,000 petition signers embrace the idea.

“The fact is that a healthy society is directly related to its cultural and artistic successes. The arts make our lives more vibrant, more meaningful. The arts make our culture more attractive, our country stronger and our citizens that much more in-tune with the human experience. [And] the fact is that every dollar spent on the arts brings back 10 to the economy,” one supporter wrote.

What do you think?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Impact of a Visionary Artist

I want to touch people with my art. I want them to say, "He feels deeply, he feels tenderly." -Vincent van Gogh

A friend of a friend tells a story. And it’s one that speaks volumes about the power of art to touch us deeply, unexpectedly, even inexplicably.

The setting is the highly regarded Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, Pa. Six or seven years ago, Phyllis, the retired teacher whose story it is, went on what she assumed would be a pleasant but routine cultural outing.

That’s pretty much what it was, she wrote in her journal shortly afterwards.

Until she turned a corner and one painting stopped her in her tracks.

She wrote that an unexpected wave of emotion overcame her immediately. She found herself bursting into tears, even before she was near enough to see the roughly 28x36-inch oil painting clearly.

Even now, she can’t say why reacted that way, or where that extreme emotion came from. She’s reluctant to embrace the easy, mystical explanations that might have come to mind when she moved closer to the painting and realized what she was seeing:

Wheat Fields at Auvers Under Clouded Sky was painted in July 1890, making it one of the last works created by Vincent Van Gogh. He committed suicide that same month.

Of course, one way to understand all this is that Phyllis had somehow tuned in directly to Van Gogh’s emotional state when he painted the picture. But there’s another way of thinking about it.

The popular image of Van Gogh is that he was a “mad genius,” and that both his life and his art were consumed by his madness. The reality is he was a disciplined artist with a mastery of color, composition and paint.

Looked at the second way, the emotional intensity of his work was anything but a byproduct of a troubled mind. It was the intended impact of a skilled artist whose vision was matched in every regard by his command of his craft.

In its own way, I think, that explanation of the power of the painting is every bit as “magical” as the first. What do you think?When was the last time you saw or heard a work of creative genius not with your eyes or ears, but in your marrow?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

What are we fighting for?

Like pretty much every other arts administrator, I always know the end of the year is going to bring anything but a “holiday” from the year-round demands of hitting budget goals and paying the bills.

That’s true even in a “good” economy, because every good arts organization I know of is always doing more than is possible with less than is needed.

So, December always means a last-minute push to bring in a little more revenue to keep the wolf away from the door just a little longer.

In years like this one, however . . .

Well, most of us have never seen a year like this one!

That’s why I found myself thinking about the Great Depression as I wrote a year-end fundraising appeal.

I don’t mean to say I think that our current economic situation rivals the Depression, as bad as it is. But I do think we can learn some important lessons about the value of the arts from that time. Famously, the federal government created four arts projects, under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration. These projects put artists, writers, musicians and actors to work, but they also did a whole lot more.

For one thing, much of what we now know about the Depression is what we have seen through the eyes of artists like Dorothea Lange, Saul Bellow, Jackson Pollack and hundreds of others who worked under the WPA programs.

But those programs also recognized that the arts are an essential aspect of both our individual lives and our society as a whole. As such, they require our support not only in good times, but especially in bad times—when it’s all too easy to conclude that we can’t afford the arts.

What the WPA demonstrated is we can’t afford to do without the arts.

That’s what I was thinking as I wrote that fundraising letter. If we don’t take care to preserve our art and culture when times are tough, what will we have left when the economy recovers?

I ended the letter with a story about Winston Churchill. The story goes that he was asked at the height of WW II whether he would consider slashing Britain’s arts budget to pay for other programs.

His response? “My God, no! What have we been fighting for?”

How important is government funding for the arts?