Arts Wonk

Posted by Rebecca Nath On April - 25 - 2011

Rebecca Nath

*This post was originally published on Arts for LA’s blog on April 18, 2011. Click on their organization names for more information on Arts for LA or Emerging Arts Leaders/Los Angeles.

As my long weekend in DC came to a close, I removed the ‘Arts Wonk’ button I had proudly worn as I strode through our nation’s capitol.

Merriam Webster defines wonk as “a person preoccupied with arcane details or procedures in a specialized field; <a policy wonk>; broadly : nerd” (italics mine).

Yes, for three straight days I had self-identified as a nerd—and I was more than happy to do so.

I received the pin earlier where my weekend as a bona fide arts wonk began: at the Emerging Arts Leaders Symposium at American University.  

The symposium was a professionally inspiring and encouraging launching pad, and presented three phenomenal panel discussions and an inspiring keynote address delivered by Rachel Gosslins, executive director of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities.

In her speech, Gosslins was realistic and did not shy away from stating the glaringly obvious point that we emerging arts leaders have our work cut out for us.

She reminded us that times are tough and only getting tougher for the arts.

But, she said, that should not dissuade us. There is much to be hopeful about, and we young professionals have the knowledge, skill, and inspiration to create a sea change for and within the arts.

This theme of undeterred optimism resonated throughout my time in DC.

At our Arts Advocacy Day training session I, along with a good number of other novice art wonks, attended a full day of training to become better acquainted with federal arts policy, as well as government budget processes and the historical framework of government support for the arts, so that we could be effective advocates before Congress.

As you can imagine, we learned that the outlook is pretty bleak, and there was no shortage of charts to prove just that.

One of the more dismal charts showed the appropriations history for the National Endowment for the Arts.

On it, a nosedive in funding after 1994 is unmistakable. Also unmistakable is the snail’s pace at which funding for the NEA thereafter increased.

In fact, it was only last year—a full sixteen years later—that funding levels finally reached something near 1994 levels. A grim reality indeed.

And just as I began to feel real trepidation for the task at hand and an overwhelming sense of ‘the cards are stacked against us’ and ‘what have I gotten myself in to?’… enter Kevin Spacey, stage left.

As keynote speaker for the 24th Annual Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy, Spacey shared the following call to action which he received from his mentor, Jack Lemmon:

“If you have been successful in the business that you wanted to be successful in, then it is your obligation to spend a good portion of your time sending the elevator back down… ‘cos it doesn’t matter what floor you’re on. In life, there’s always someone just below, just waiting for the chance to be invited up.”

As an emerging professional who has been happy and successful because of, through, and for the arts, it is my civic duty to be a part of ensuring that the elevator continues to get sent back down.

For students to have equal access to quality arts education, for all neighborhoods to be able to partake in productions of Shakespeare, and for the arts to be easily accessible to all communities—my charge is to ensure that the elevator gets sent back down, and down, and down again.

As I learned in DC, and as was demonstrated with the near-shutdown of the federal government, garnering federal support for the arts is not an easy commission.

It is one that has great leadership and momentum, but one that can always use additional voices.

Voices from the likes of emerging arts professionals, seasoned professionals, or those who simply think the arts have a fundamental role in society, we all have a shared responsibility to ensure that this arts elevator is fully operational, very well-funded, and on unremitting rotation.

We do not all have to be full-fledged arts wonks, spending our free time flying to DC, but we can make our voices heard simply through our vote, by talking with our members of congress, or by sending a letter of support.

This arts wonk can tell you first-hand that each and every little action counts.

On this final note, I will leave you with the following call to action from Henry David Thoreau: “Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence.”

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