The arts are everywhere. That’s a truth, and a political statement.
We’re already a quarter of the way through the final term of the MA/MBA, and it has hit with full force. Added to the ongoing coursework is the job hunt, and the attempts to fit in social activities that simultaneously accept and deny the fact that our cohort is nearing the end of their time together. Last Saturday, this meant a Texas experience at the “World’s Largest Honky Tonk”, Billy Bob’s of Fort Worth. A busload of us made the 80km journey across the metroplex to a country bar bigger than any I had ever seen. Ranchers and tourists two-stepped together on the giant dance floor, before a live band rocked the crowd with country covers of Bob Marley and Nirvana. Couldn’t make that last part up.
Despite the big night, it was an early Sunday morning spent getting ready to go to Washington DC for Arts Advocacy Day, an event held by my summer internship employers Americans for the Arts. It’s an annual event in which arts leaders from across the USA come together to discuss policy, train in advocacy, and engage with political leaders to make the case for why the arts are an integral part of our society.
And they are, whether it’s the live music at Billy Bob’s, the art museum across from the Dunkin’ Donuts in the terminal at Love Field (yes, there’s an art museum in an airport), or the elaborate dance number that is Virgin America’s in flight safety video.
A three hour flight from Dallas took me to Washington DC, and I immediately headed across the border into Maryland, to have a “family dinner” at the house where I lived last summer, catching up with old friends and making new ones with the current residents. From there it was back into the city to a massive hotel, a massive bed, and a massive view across Rock Creek to the Washington Monument.
The next morning, more than five hundred of us packed the hotel ballroom for breakfast and briefings on the state of the arts at a federal level. What was clear was that the arts touches all areas of policy, not just cultural policy, but in areas as diverse as education, immigration reform, and taxation. When advocating for the value of the arts, we needed to know how the arts impacted these areas, and where lawmakers stood on each issue.
Our next briefing gave us the tools to make the case to lawmakers, but with the caveat: “There are no numbers without stories, no stories without numbers.”
Randy Cohen, VP of Research (and my former boss) proceeded to give us the numbers to make our case, showing us the history of arts funding in the USA, and the economic impact of the arts in society. The arts and creative industries are often overlooked as an afterthought, but their economic impact (4.3% of GDP) outstrips other areas (rightly) considered essential to the economy, such as agriculture (1.2%), mining (2.5%), and transport (2.9%).
The next item on the agenda was the keynote speech of National Endowment for the Arts chairperson Jane Chu, but I missed it for something even more important… a job interview. Even when on conference, the MBA life doesn’t stop.
After the interview I got to sit down with the delegation from the state of Texas to learn about the issues most relevant to my adopted state, and the plan of action for meeting with elected officials. Our delegation was a mix of arts administrators and students, representing towns and cities from all across the state. Our day on Capitol Hill would be packed, running from office to office to meet with representatives and their staffers. Which led to the next stage of the day, roleplaying activities where we watched how to deal with different scenarios in meetings, from the reluctant staffer to the “one-issue” representative.
With the formal program over for the day, we piled onto buses and headed across to the Kennedy Center for the evening’s gala event, a mixture of performances and speeches, crowned by a lecture from Norman Lear on the role that the arts have in shaping society. Whilst I didn’t always agree with his viewpoints, he was a compelling speaker who knew how to work a crowd.
The bus ride back became eventful when we had a crash in traffic, and were forced to debark and return to the hotel on the metro. It was an opportunity to meet with some of the other arts administration students at the conference (there were over 100 of us there), undergraduates and graduates from a diverse range of backgrounds, all passionate about making a difference in the world through the arts.
It was an early night to ensure an early start to the second day of proceedings, which all took place on Capitol Hill. First up was the Congressional Breakfast, where we packed the caucus room of the Cannon building to hear representatives from both parties talk about the value of the arts. The arts is a bipartisan issue at its core; where the friction lies is often in the details. Particularly memorable was the speech of Congressman John Lewis of Georgia, who noted the value of the arts in helping to advance the civil rights movement, and underlining how the arts are “the heart and soul of a nation”. It filled us with great pride and energy for the day ahead.
It was energy that we needed as we began our flurry of meetings. Many groups were on the hill that day, representing a variety of causes, so time was short for meetings. At our first stop (no less than Senator Ted Cruz), we met in the hallways, his office still a flurry of activity after his announcement of his Presidential campaign the previous day. It was a gracious gesture that their office gave us any time at all given the circumstances. Our next meeting was in a different hallway, a few floors up. We couldn’t help but note as we conversed with a staffer how the arts were integral to our lives, pointing out the giant Alexander Calder sculpture that dominated the atrium below us.
From there it was across to the offices of Congress, meeting with the staffers of district level representatives. It was a sitting day on the Hill, so every so often we would hear buzzers going off to announce votes taking place in the House.
Staffers were very generous with their time, sitting down with us to go through the issues and to hear what we had to say. In fact their time was so generous that when it came time to meet with the office of my local representative, I was the only one available to go. I had to muster all that I had learned by observation of the morning meetings and put it to use. I was nervous and excited.
My local representative has been in Congress for many years, and by virtue of this has managed to obtain a well appointed office adorned with photos and mementos. His staffer and I sat next to each other at the meeting table and discussed our mutual backgrounds in the arts, our career paths, and our appreciation of how arts and sciences are not mutually exclusive but complementary in nature.
We then moved onto the policy issues of the day, focusing on the things most relevant to Dallas and to Texas, particularly tax reforms and their potential impacts on the non-profit sector, and how the arts industries are an attractor for companies to communities. Businesses know that to hire top talent you need to be situated in a community that supports the lifestyles and needs of that talent, and invariably arts and educational access are drivers of that support.
After nearly half an hour, we wound up our discussions and thanked ach other. Then it was all over. I’m not sure I made any grand changes of heart, but I made a strong case, and that’s a start.
On the way home I swung by my old office to catch up with friends, then visited the outlet of Ben’s Chili Bowl in the airport for a classic Half-Smoke hotdog. On the flight back, the TV screens showed interludes of ballets and live music.
Art is an integral part of every culture. It is everywhere, from the designs of our houses and our clothes, to the choreographed spectacles of international events like the Olympics. However, we can’t take it for granted. That’s why we need events like Arts Advocacy Day, to remind us all that the arts are a valuable part of our identity and our economy that we must support.
Observations on music, coffee, and the occasional controversial thought.
Copyright © Gerard Atkinson 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the owner is strictly prohibited.