Burn, Baby, Burn.

After watching Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) – a politician so evil even his own lawyer wants nothing to do with him – lead the charge to eviscerate the .0000588 percent of the economic stimulus package directed toward the arts, I can’t help but think of a passage from John Schaefer’s 1/15/2009 blog post:

At times like this, I think of the famous anecdote of Winston Churchill, at the height of the Blitz…being confronted by politicians who wanted him to throw all the resources normally devoted to the theater and the arts to the war effort instead. “Good God,” he replied; “then what are we fighting for?”

Historically, great art is a natural byproduct of a great civilization; the two are not mutually exclusive, which is something Churchill apparently understood but escapes the distinguished gentleman from Oklahoma. In short, whenever a society reaches a certain critical mass, it produces benefits for its population that are greater than the sum of its parts.

The typical American experiences a diverse cross section of these benefits. From tangible advantages such as interstate highways, sports arenas, advances in pharmaceuticals, and the sophisticated production quality of television programs to more surreptitious aspects like public safety (everything from firefighters, food inspectors, to air marshals), clean air, and cultural fulfillment.

By targeting the arts and treating it as some sort of malignant social tumor, the distinguished gentleman from Oklahoma and 72 of his colleagues have attempted to contemptuously snatch away one of the most valuable benefits associated with our socio-economic economy of scale.

Chicago Tribune theater Critic, Chris Jones, authored an article in the paper’s 2/9/2009 edition that does an excellent job at defining how the arts fit into this historical crossroads. Although the entire article is excellent, two particular passages caught my attention.

“It is time for the American arts community to confront its stunning political ineptitude. It has arrived at a place where there seems to be no one to make its case; no one, at least, free from the taint of self-interest.”

I couldn’t agree more. At the same time, Congress has demonstrated that even with the rhetoric of hope and change flying high throughout the nation’s capitol; when push comes to shove, the golden rule prevails (he who has the gold, makes the rules). Consequently, the arts would initially benefit more from securing the services of effective, high priced lobbyists than what Jones suggests. Don’t get me wrong, the arts would benefit from such a person if he or she even exists but in the meantime, those words can be crafted by skilled speech writers (surprise, more artists!).

Undoubtedly, although well-meaning, the numerous service organizations spread throughout the arts field are an ineffective tool when it comes to influencing “opinion” on Capitol Hill. Consequently, it’s time to turn to lobbyists and other influence peddlers in order to restore one of our most valuable national treasures.

The second item worth mentioning is when Jones expands on his above position toward the end of the article.

“More significantly, the arts have thrown up precious few, articulate, clout-heavy American leaders of their own. That needs to change. Old economic arguments must be articulated anew.”

One again, I couldn’t agree more. However, the sort of clout-heavy individual Jones defines is most likely to come about only after we’ve achieved a necessary level of political influence. Even now, artistic heavy-hitters such as Quincy Jones seem to have little impact on reversing attitudes toward the arts among a majority of federal lawmakers. Consequently, Congress’ final economic stimulus package will exclude arts funding, making President Obama the final voice of reason to determine whether or not the arts go gentle into that good night. Ideally, he’ll remember the sacrifices and support his campaign received from artists across the country when deciding how hard to fight for arts funding.

In the meantime, Bruce Ridge, International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM) chairperson, released the following letter over the weekend urging all those concerned about the direction of the current economic stimulus package to contact their respective representatives. I wholeheartedly support Bruce’s position and encourage everyone to follow the link toward the end of his letter and send the recommended message to your US Senators.

The Senate has passed an amendment to the economic stimulus package that removes funding for (among other things) “theaters, museums, and arts centers.” The amendment, offered by Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, effectively removes the arts from the stimulus package.

The arts in America account for over $166 billion in economic activity every year, and provide over 5.7 million jobs. The $50 million that was in the stimulus package for the National Endowment for the Arts could save over 14,000 jobs.

There is still time to influence the Congressional decision on the future of the Arts in America. We believe that the arts are crucial to the economic recovery that lies ahead.

Our friends at Americans for the Arts have created an easy online form to write to your Senators on this issue. It will take you less than two minutes to encourage your Senators to support the arts and the role they can play in the economic and educational future of our country.

If you are in favor of funding for the arts in the economic stimulus package, please go to http://capwiz.com/artsusa/issues/alert/?alertid=12612041 and express your support to your Senators.

I encourage you to take this action in support of the arts in America.

Bruce Ridge
chair, International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM)

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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6 thoughts on “Burn, Baby, Burn.”

  1. It is pathetic that “Arts” is truly a four-letter word in many parts of America. A long term strategy should be undertaken to improve our image.

    In the meantime, we in the arts have choices to make. We can be like any other special interest group and hire consultants and lobbyists, thus squandering precious resources trying to play a game that we have basically lost already. OR we as musicians could start a private endowment for music and music education and staff it with recognizable and trustworthy individuals.

    Once created, it would be time to approach those who have been wasting their resources trying for decades to get the government to sponsor the arts and convince them that a privately run endowment is the way to go. I would guess the amount of time and money spent trying to get the pathetic NEA contribution from the government could fund a lot of new school music programs.

  2. I found the link, here. The ones who voted against the amendment:

    Akaka (D-HI)
    Boxer (D-CA)
    Burris (D-IL)
    Dodd (D-CT)
    Durbin (D-IL)
    Gillibrand (D-NY)
    Hagan (D-NC)
    Harkin (D-IA)
    Inouye (D-HI)
    Kaufman (D-DE)
    Kerry (D-MA)
    Landrieu (D-LA)
    Lautenberg (D-NJ)
    Leahy (D-VT)
    Levin (D-MI)
    Lieberman (ID-CT)
    Menendez (D-NJ)
    Reed (D-RI)
    Reid (D-NV)
    Rockefeller (D-WV)
    Sanders (I-VT)
    Shaheen (D-NH)
    Webb (D-VA)
    Whitehouse (D-RI)

    Plus, irony of ironies, the opera soprano Sarah Coburn is Senator Coburn’s daughter.

  3. Don’t politicians just reflect what will get them elected/reelected? If the public valued federal arts funding, and it became such a passion that it was more of a difference-maker in elections, then we’d see action by politicians reflecting that value. The fact it is being used by politicians in the exact opposite manner (cut NEA = build the case you’re a good legislator) shows that the public is simply not valuing the arts to the degree where it is a value concerning elected officials. (Our friend from OK is being absolutely vilified by artists this week, but bear in mind key leaders on BOTH sides of the aisle have lent support to the NEA amendment.)

    How much of the difference between the political actions of the 1930’s and today is really an illustration of how the public views the arts, and how politicians are subject to that public will?

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