We in the arts spend a lot of time apologizing…at least I do. I find, however, that when I apologize for something, I usually can gain some empathy for my position. Let me illustrate.
If you are speaking to a congressman or senator that isn’t especially receptive to public funding of the arts or arts education, I often ask if he or she were able to participate in the arts when they were in elementary school and middle school. Invariably, in one way or another, these “adults” had some form of quality arts experiences growing up–going to the theater, attending a ballet performance, a field trip to the museum, etc. And so I ask them what that experience meant to them.
Usually, the response is something like, “It was great. I really enjoyed it!” At that point, I generally offer my apology–saying something like, “I’m sorry that your children or grandchildren won’t be able to have that same experience.”
Deer in the Headlights
“What do you mean?” is usually the question that follows. And I remind them that by their vote against the National Endowment for the Arts–or a vote against a state arts program–they are effectively removing arts experiences from the schools, depriving children of having the same kinds of experiences that they enjoyed.
There is usually a stunned look. And for the staunchest opponents, the comment comes–well, the private sector will make up the difference. I remind them of some of the rural counties where unemployment is in the double digits and where there are no major industries. Who in the private sector is going to see that children in these areas have access to quality arts experiences? The public official usually begins mumbling at this point.
Offering a way out
So as not to end our conversation on a really negative note, I offer them a way to correct the situation. It goes something like this…
We all understand deficits and the need to balance budgets and a challenging economy. All we want is parity–a commitment from you Mr./Ms. Elected Official to seeing the arts on an equal footing with healthcare, social services, and defense. We want recognition that the arts are about developing the creative class, educating an intelligent workforce, and creating a stronger economy, while at the same time adding beauty to the world around us. We’re suggesting that the arts and arts education can flourish at the same time as social services and healthcare and defense. It’s about balance.
Instead of shooting from the hip and taking the easy way out (cutting funding for the arts because some people would rather have more welfare, more police, and more entitlements than children seeing ballet performances or children listening to storytellers talk about their state’s history, even though at the federal level and state level, public funding for the arts accounts for less than 1/10th of one percent of overall budgets), we need to encourage lawmakers to embrace the arts as a tool that will make our communities stronger and more vibrant.
We will have a better educated workforce that will be able to find better jobs because they can think analytically, communicate clearly, and dream big dreams because they were exposed to the arts. Supporting public funding of the arts makes economic sense, and the bonus is that our communities are enriched with music, dance, art, and so much more for all to enjoy!