This past Friday, I took part in a discussion that was part of a visit to Peoria by National Endowment for the Arts Chairman, Rocco Landesman. The visit came about as a result of comments that Chairman Landesman made several months ago, saying that he didn't know if Peoria had a theatre, but that if so, it probably wasn't as good as the Steppenwolf in Chicago. Suzette Boulais, Executive Director of ArtsPartners, and Kathy Chitwood, Executive Director of Eastlight Theatre each wrote to Rocco, saying he should come see for himself what Peoria has to offer. And he took them up on it, using his visit to Peoria as the kickoff for his Art Works tour, which will have him visiting cities throughout the country to learn how art shapes the economics, city revitalization, and social development of communities. He wrapped up his visit by attending a special performance of Rent at Eastlight.
The discussion I attended took place at WTVP studios and was taped for the NEA website, as well as a special edition of At Issue, a WTVP program with producer/host, H. Wayne Wilson. I was one of the audience members who posed questions to Chairman Landesman in both tapings.
I have a strong sense that those of us in the arts have a responsibility to make our voices heard, when it comes time to shape public policy that effects how the arts are funded and allowed to thrive. One of the interesting points that Chairman Landesman made is that even some Congress members have made comments about the (comparitively miniscule) amounts of the national budget directed to supporting the arts being frivolous, and that it could instead go to creating "real jobs". Rocco pointed out that someone who'd spent their life working to become the top violinist in a symphony orchestra would not think they didn't have a "real job". And he went on to note that the number of people who have full time jobs in the arts is actually greater than the number of people with jobs in the transportation sector and automobile manufacturing industries combined.
There was also discussion of the arts in education, how it's the first thing eliminated when budgets are tight. And yet it's been shown again and again that students who have the arts as a part of their curriculum achieve higher in all areas of academic pursuit, as well as at success in life and business after leaving school, than those who don't. We need the arts if we're to compete effectively on the world stage. Those who claim otherwise are simply ignorant of the facts.
So it's obvious that the arts play a major role in the economic, academic, and cultural health of our society, and it's time that those of us who have a stake in the arts step up and educate people on the realities of not only the part that art plays in our personal lives, but also of the value it has in our economic health as a nation.