In late July 2001, Americans for the Arts held its annual conference in New York City. It was the biggest gathering we had ever had, some 1,600 leaders from the local arts agency and state arts agency worlds, including not only members of Americans for the Arts but also the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies.
A favorite event that we produce at these conferences is ARTventures — special off-site, educational tours that offer convention attendees the opportunity to see what arts activities are going on and meet artists in different neighborhoods and different venues throughout the city. In New York in 2001, I chose to go to our ARTventure program at the World Trade Center.
Somewhere up high on the 91st and 92nd floors of Tower One was an arts colony carved out of raw space that had been donated by the Port Authority to artists and arts organizations to create, plan, and dream. The 60 or so of us who went there that day as guests of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council got to share in those dreams and visions and gazed out the giant plate glass windows at the same blue New York sky that was serving as an inspiration to all those artists within.
On Sept 11, 2001, just a few weeks later, I was looking out the window of Americans for the Arts’ headquarters office in Washington, D.C., which looks at the White House and beyond towards the Pentagon. Suddenly I could see the plume of smoke rise from where the Pentagon was located. We had just received word both via news media and from our New York office that the Twin Towers had been hit. Some members of our New York staff were on their way to work and saw the impact.
I spent the day like everyone: trying to make sure our staff and colleagues were safe, trying to get home myself, horrified, trying to comprehend. The image I seem to remember most vividly occurred at sunset that night on top of my apartment building roof deck — the nation’s capital almost shut down, military vehicles in all the streets, nothing in the air except way up high fighter jets crisscrossing the sky. Then silently, low across the sky, flew four dark helicopters carrying the President of United States back to the White House.
On that day I wondered about the value of the arts in such an awful world. But I was almost as immediately struck by images of the importance, the necessity of the arts during this terrible event and its aftermath.
After observing a moment of silence, the first thing that those members of Congress who were able to find their way to the Capitol did when they gathered at the building’s steps was to spontaneously break into song. It was a powerful, touching and humbling scene, watching Republicans and Democrats together singing “God Bless America” in front of the architectural symbol of our nation.
Images began to appear on television of spontaneous demonstrations of creativity in towns and on roadsides all across America in memory of those killed. Americans for the Arts set up a communications hotline on our website for people in the arts community to share information or ask questions. Art was shared; more than one thousand examples of art projects and creative commemorations flooded the website. Many of these messages remain in our archives to this day.
Perhaps the most poignant post-9/11 event for me was the one sponsored and hosted by our friends at the Arlington County Arts Council for the families of those slain at the Pentagon. Yo Yo Ma quietly came in for this private gathering and performed heroically to an emotional and highly appreciative audience. It was about the families, and the memory and the music.
On this day I often think of that floor of raw concrete space and glass high up in the Twin Towers. It was a floor full of color, of sound, of entrepreneurial hope, of experiment, of debate and of the very best that the arts have to offer. Now the space and art exist only virtually — you can see it here: “World Views.” Some 130 artists from around the world worked there from 1997 to 2001. One of them, Michael Richards, died there on September 11.
That floor is gone, but in communities all across America there are similar spaces, and artists, and arts organizations, and volunteers and individuals who care that America has such places. In many ways our democracy is built on that spirit with the arts playing a key role since the very beginning.
The arts are how we communicate about our emotions, our memories, our hopes, our anger, our history and our resolve. And every single memorial event that I have ever seen relating to the horror of 9/11 has included the arts as a necessary core of activity. And this year, as we mark the 10-year anniversary of that tragic day, the arts will again be a core part of commemorations — helping us remember what was lost and providing a sense of community and healing as we move forward.
*Note: This post was also published on The Huffington Post on September 9, 2011.