Arts Update: March 29, 2009
Like most arts commissioners, I joined my county commission 14 months ago – not because I wanted a fancy name tag (which I’m usually too shy to wear in public anyway) – but because I actually wanted to make some sort of difference in the cultural conditions of my greater community. I wanted to help shape policy that would promote both artistic and economic development; policy that would keep the arts accessible to students in our public schools. I was even hoping the commission could become involved in helping to start a local literary magazine. But instead, I wound up spending most of my time justifying the necessity of public funding for the arts.
When I first joined, our county commission’s budget sat at around $180,000 (already down from where it sat at the same time the previous year by around $40K). It was then cut to $135,000 in September of 2008, before being almost cut entirely in February of 2009. Thanks to an impromptu letter writing protest, some of the funds were “recovered” so that now we expect to press on with an estimated budget of $89,000 at our “disposal” (see list of department cuts here). Even that money is not a sure thing, as the TNT ominously suggested today in an article that quoted a representative of the county sheriff’s department as saying: “maybe this money for arts and some of this other stuff needs to take a break for a couple years.”
Call me crazy, but I always believed that the purpose of public funding for the arts was to provide creative outlets and artistic exposure for those whom middle-class America had forgotten; specifically those suffering from social exclusion, physical disabilities or even those living under the most extreme forms of economic inequality. How then can we justify cutting funding for the arts at times like these without ultimately discounting the very principals upon which our commissions were founded?
Recently, I had the opportunity to witness yet another Dance Theatre Northwest performance – this time at a Nursing Home in University Place. While I came to support the extremely dedicated students and instructors of this fine association, I ultimately spent more time watching the audience than the performers on stage.
My grandmother (Oma) is 92 years old and in the advanced stages of Alzheimer Disease. Both my parents lost their jobs last year in the economic downturn we’re still reading about today. They can’t afford to place Oma in the kind of facility which Alzheimer’s patients require, so as a result she spends her days sitting in a chair watching television while my Mom struggles to find work that will simultaneously allow her to care for her mother.
Generally I visit my parents’ home in Portland (where unemployment reached 11% this past week) at least once a month, and I’ve noticed that Oma is most lucid when she’s watching either tennis or some kind of music program (usually classical symphony or choir). She was once a tremendous athlete, running a mile every day and lifting weights until she was forced to quit at age 88. Now, televised tennis and music is all she has left.
DTN’s audience this past week was – generally speaking – in better shape than my Oma, but the underlying message of their performance was no less poignant. For some people, THESE ART PROGRAMS LITERALLY MEAN THE WORLD.
So at the end of the day, I’m a member of a commission that spends 90% of its time beating the same drum into the ground. But if we have to keep beating it to keep these programs alive….
Reducing our budget by any amount isn’t going to help shore up a $12 MILLION dollar short-fall, and will only hamper our ability to provide meaningful arts assistance to individuals and organizations who depend on us to help them bring a sense of relief to the less fortunate members of our community.
Again, public funding for the arts in this country was not born out of economic decadence but rather financial necessity. Here in Pierce County, the need for public arts assistance is growing against a backdrop of shrinking support from our county council. In other words, the very logic of an arts commission itself is being turned upside down and eventually someone is going to have to ask why we even have a commission in the first place.
I would like to encourage readers to once again remind our elected officials of why you are a patron of the arts and why you want your tax dollars to subsidize arts programs. Readers should write their county council member (which can be found here) and tell he/she to support the arts this recession. (If you don’t know which district you live in, find out here.)