In Defense of the Arts

It is fitting that I post this on the day that Income Taxes are due. I am re-posting a few excerpts from an email sent to me from Americans for the Arts, the nation’s leading nonprofit organization for advancing the arts in America. Visit the Americans for the Arts website to see how you can make a difference in the budgets of state arts agencies in your neck of the woods. Mari

The N.H. House of Representatives’ budget would dismantle the Department of Cultural Resources and eliminate the State Council on the Arts. Opponents hope the Senate will recognize the value of art and restore at least some of those funds to the final budget bill. What follows is a series of short essays written by local people who connect arts and the community on the Seacoast. This is their argument for the future of the arts.

Art & Democracy

by John-Michael Albert, poet and former board member of Poetry Society of New Hampshire and Jazzmouth

My second foster mother once told me a true story from her childhood. Her father was a university professor. His family spent their summers at a small lake house in Nebraska. Every evening, after supper, her father would load a wind-up phonograph and a pile of 78s into a rowboat, row out to the middle of the lake, drop anchor and listen to Beethoven, Mozart and the like until the stars came out. He told her, “This was the music of kings and now, it’s ours!”

There was a time when cultural diversity and enrichment were the exclusive domain of royalty, the privileged, the rich. But our democracy had made it and its many benefits the right of everyone, even a chemistry professor and his family in Nebraska.

A broad and deep artistic culture is a democracy’s debt to itself. And paying such a debt says something profound about the democracy’s identity. It says that the democracy believes in its future, and that it recognizes that a future with a rich balance of experiences—like work and play; communication and private reflection; the pleasure of friendships and open-handed generosity to strangers—is a future of hope. For a democracy to dismiss the vital contributions that the arts make to its depth and breadth is for that democracy to surrender to despair—the ultimate sin against the spirit of being human.

So, here we are, a democracy. It’s a time of enormous fiscal crisis. We panic. Define and cut all cultural activities (euphemistically, “extras”). Define and cut all charitable expenditures (euphemistically, “entitlements”). Surely, such self-discipline will resolve the fiscal problem.

But that’s obviously not true. At one time, our ancestors were guilty of a similar kind of panic. They believed that child sacrifice would improve the probability of a good harvest. Good or bad harvests depend on other things, entirely.

Fiscal crises will not be resolved by “child sacrifice,” sacrificing the future we create for ourselves and leave to our friends and heirs. Fiscal problems need fiscal solutions. Sacrificing our clear social responsibility to those who share our democracy with us, and the depth and breadth of our artistic culture—which, together, constitute our hope for the future—will not resolve our financial crisis. It will, however, cast a pall over the future that will continue long after sanity has been restored to our legislature’s concept of the responsible creation and distribution of public wealth.

Art & Heritage

by Cathy Sununu, executive director of Portsmouth Museum of Art

Recently, I was having dinner at a local restaurant with my parents and my brother when a gentleman came over and introduced himself. He happened to be a craftsman—a maker of fine, custom bamboo fly fishing rods—and he mentioned that one of his fondest memories was being part of the NH Folklife Festival on the Mall in Washington, D.C., many years ago. He and my brother, former Congressman and Senator John E. Sununu, reminisced about how proud they were of the artists and craftsmen who represented the state there, bringing the best of New Hampshire’s artistic heritage to our nation’s capitol.

These days, it’s unclear whether we, our children or our grandchildren will have the chance to celebrate our artistic roots. The House budget plan to eliminate the N.H. State Council on the Arts pains me on a personal level. My father, former Gov. John H. Sununu, increased funding for the Arts Council to $500,000 in the 1980s. He’s an extremely practical man and understood the importance of the arts and the role they play in our state’s tourism economy, as a tool for economic development, and as an educational resource. And, while the amount of funding for the Arts Council is, in his words, “trivial” to the overall budget, it has a huge impact on our communities. It’s hard to believe our legislature may undo what he set in motion.

I was raised in a family where the arts mattered. As kids, we participated in the arts in various ways, and all of us have carried those experiences into adulthood. The arts helped us develop into creative thinkers and problem solvers.

I live on the Seacoast now and spend virtually every day in Portsmouth. The city has reinvented itself, offering the best of contemporary performing and visual arts. Ask anyone to describe Portsmouth and they’ll likely talk about an artistic or cultural experience they’ve had here.

Just two weeks ago, we hosted a wonderful event at the Portsmouth Museum of Art in collaboration with Arts in Reach, an arts program for at-risk teenage girls. The girls told powerful stories through visual art and poetry, inspired by a museum exhibit of unique self portraits by artists from around the globe.

The creative enrichment and spirit of collaboration these girls experienced is something that can’t be quantified. It’s a clear reminder of the importance of the Arts Council, not just in building strong arts organizations, but in building strong communities. In a small, community-based state like New Hampshire, that’s priceless.

Art & Fiscal Responsibility

by Genevieve Aichele, actor and artistic director of New Hampshire Theatre Project

The popular view is that artists are fiscally irresponsible. Oh, how I beg to differ. We are the most financially thrifty people in the world and we can stretch a dollar farther than the stingiest Yankee. We know a lot about fiscal responsibility.

Last week, the N.H. House of Representatives voted to completely eliminate the N.H. State Council on the Arts, in the name of fiscal responsibility. The Council’s annual budget of $450,000 currently costs each person in our state of 1.3 million people approximately 34 cents. For this fractional expenditure, arts and cultural organizations in Portsmouth alone generate more than $38 million and employ more than 1,100 people. Any businessperson will tell you this is an extraordinary return on investment. And that’s not counting what the 34 cents does in the rest of the state.

The Arts Council gives out small grants to cover special projects in arts education and health care, along with general operating support to small organizations like N.H. Theatre Project and Pontine Theatre. Most businesses want to support arts projects with high public profiles that will increase their own bottom line. They aren’t interested in supporting educational programs with developmentally disabled adults or touring small productions to nursing homes. Our performance season is supported by ticket sales and generous sponsorships. But, for the educational programs that are at the heart of our mission and for basic operating expenses, we have very limited funding resources. The loss of the Arts Council grants will be devastating to New Hampshire’s small arts, educational and social service organizations.

N.H. Theatre Project has 2.5 staff members. We employ 50 independent contractors annually—teaching artists, actors, directors, musicians, writers, designers and graphic artists. These artists are not part of the “public sector.” They do not have pension plans or even health insurance. For very little money, they work extraordinarily hard to change the lives of thousands of people—and to bring in patrons who support the Seacoast’s thriving hospitality industry. That’s a lot of bang for very little bucks.

I personally believe that we as a state and a nation have to make better fiscal choices and take responsibility for how those choices affect the future. Cutting the N.H. State Council on the Arts is a fiscally irresponsible decision that will seriously affect the lives of many, many people now and in the future.

Art & Literature

by Katherine Towler, novelist, teacher, board member of N.H. Writers’ Project

The night of the Poetry Out Loud regional semi-finals, the atmosphere was charged in the auditorium at Currier Museum, though a cold rain verging on sleet fell outside. I sat with the other judges and watched a 10th grader cross the stage. She held the hem of her blouse nervously, but when she began reciting a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye, her voice was strong, her cadence confident. She had done more than memorize the poem; she embodied it. To see someone her age take possession of a poem and deliver it so surely left me, and the rest of the audience, awestruck.

This year, close to 10,000 students from 35 New Hampshire high schools competed in the Poetry Out Loud recitation contest. Each participant memorized three poems chosen from an anthology compiled by the National Endowment for the Arts, which funds the program. Olivia Vordenberg of Souhegan High School in Amherst won the final round at the State House on March 17 and will compete with finalists from all 50 states in Washington at the end of April.

Poetry Out Loud is one of many arts education programs administered by the N.H. State Council on the Arts. The Arts Council solicits the aid of a number of partners in bringing the recitation contest to teachers and their students. One partner is the NH Writers’ Project, a non-profit that promotes N.H. writers and the literary arts. It’s this sort of synergy that gives us arts programming throughout the state.

But such partnerships are only possible because of funding from the Arts Council. The Writers’ Project, for instance, relies on grants from the Council to fund its operating budget and finance such projects as a Book Fair in Berlin this summer. Bringing more arts events to the North Country has been an important goal for the Writers’ Project.  Events like the Book Fair enrich lives and create community, but they also have an impact on the local economy. The ripple effect is huge.

On that rainy night at the Currier, I listened to teenagers recite poems by Shakespeare, Sylvia Plath, Edgar Allen Poe, Allen Ginsberg, and Langston Hughes, impressed by the range and difficulty of the works they had chosen, and by the poise and passion they brought to their performances. It was clear they were learning indelible lessons about poetry, public speaking, and the richness of our literary heritage. A small amount of seed money and a great deal of work made this rich experience possible. Funding for the arts is not something we, or our children, can afford to lose.

Art & The Future

by Ross Bachelder, artist, musician, manager of the Franklin Gallery in Rochester, author of the Artful Endeavors New England blog

Swell. The recently elected governor of Maine—apparently a man of disturbingly myopic tastes—has brought international scorn and ridicule from around the world for his decision to banish magnificent murals that celebrate the proud history of Maine-based unionism from the people’s Statehouse.

And now, right here in New Hampshire, legislators are swinging their granite-hard fiscal machete down on this state’s once proud commitment to adequately funding the arts, education, and people with special needs. Have they forgotten that the people they’re sworn to serve are their children and grandchildren, their friends and neighbors, and an essential component of the future they so blithely want to weaken into a sugarless, money-obsessed tapioca of cultural insipidity?

It’s pitiful, really. And, in many cities, I’m convinced there is more than a concern for the pocketbook at work here. A few people on the Seacoast and elsewhere have decided that the arts are a foolish, cash-poor endeavor and a waste of their children’s time. Indeed, I’m detecting an overt hostility toward artists of every kind and the art they’re producing with such passion.

The myth that Rochester has missed the bus to cultural nirvana is, like the Wicked Witch of the West, Ding Dong Dead! Come and see the Rochester Opera House. Visit artstream, see its ambitious exhibits and enroll in its classes. Stop by Ben Franklin Crafts and see the provocative monthly exhibits at the Franklin Gallery. Come dine at the Portable Pantry, which has become a vitally important meeting place for the people from Rochester Main Street and elsewhere who are working to make the city a proud, worthwhile destination.

For countless centuries, the fine and performing arts have been pouring down the joyful sunlight of creativity—a reverence for all things beautiful—on what would otherwise be a gray-cloud existence for all of us. Do we really want to take these joys away from our children?

Rochester’s gifted scratchboard artist Bob Goudreau probably said it best: “It is the job of artists to convey to all of us the passion that only the human soul can feel. Art shows future generations who we were when we were creating. The arts are a gift for children and adults of every age and circumstance. They’re not meant to be suffocated. They’re meant to thrive, and in Rochester and elsewhere they must be preserved.”

Art & Architecture

by Steven McHenry, principal of McHenry Architecture, board president of Art-Speak

I arrived in Portsmouth in 1974, having finished with college, the U.S. Army, and a cabinetmaking apprenticeship, and determined to start over on my own. I soon found an enterprising sculptor, David Clarke, who took me on as his helper, and we convinced Strawbery Banke Museum to rent us an unused house as a woodcarving shop for the season. We grew the business in fits and starts by making signs and custom architectural projects, but for me it was really an education in design, calligraphy, painting, gilding and drawing. The faculty that inspired this new career was the community of fellow artists and craftspeople who seemed to be coming to Portsmouth for like-minded pursuits.

At that time, building restoration in the South End was percolating, perhaps inspired by the transformations of Prescott Park and Strawbery Banke. The downtown was in trouble. Retailers were struggling to compete with the fast growth of suburban sprawl at its edges. At night, few restaurants were able to succeed, the two movie theaters were close to failure, live music was rare, and Gilly’s was the center of activity.

By the end of the ’70s, Market Square had been transformed in time for the bicentennial, Theatre by the Sea had moved from its basement space and the restaurant boom was underway. There is no simple explanation for why the forces of change converged during that period to create Portsmouth’s transformation, but there is no doubt that it occurred. The rich architectural legacy that survived urban renewal and the energy of those determined to save it certainly contributed. We now take great pride in the tangible results of these efforts—a carefully guarded historic district, an urban experience that is lively and diverse, high property values, and a citizenry that is highly engaged in the city’s political and civic life.

I refer to my own experience of arriving in Portsmouth as an example of someone seeking a life with new meaning. This surely occurs to us all at some point in our lives. I took great inspiration from all that was happening in Portsmouth at the time of my arrival. I left to study architecture for a few years, but returned to the area to raise a family and start my business. For me, Portsmouth has always been a place that has embraced and protected its cultural history while providing an open, adventurous environment for good living. I believe this is why young, ambitious people continue to come here as I did. Good food, good art, community involvement, a spirited performance and literary arts scene are not “amenities,” they are fundamental reasons that people choose to stay here and make a living. Our arts culture is our culture. The richness of this culture is not easy to develop, but it can be lost.

Art & Education

by Anna Nuttall, art teacher, board member of Art-Speak 

I am biased, I know. As an art teacher, I believe that art and education form the foundation of civilization.

Art embodies the most powerful qualities of humankind: creativity, innovation, problem solving, investigation, identity, communication, expression. Among the benefactors are our families, communities, state and nation. Art and the process of making it are at the very core of who we are and how we think. It’s not just about knowing how to use the tools you have, but about figuring out how to create the tools you need.

Our children must be able to make and use these tools to enter prepared into a challenging 21st century reality. To intentionally reduce access to the arts is to go against four decades of research that tell us they are critical to our children’s development, success, and holistic education.

Last year, Art-Speak and the Portsmouth Middle School visual arts department ran a grant-funded program called ArtWorks. It was developed to introduce Grade 8 visual arts students to a range of career opportunities in the arts through partnering with local businesses, organizations, and professional artists.

The program enabled students to learn the business end of art and dabble in its crafts, like sculpture, graphic design, photography, videography, illustration and painting. They learned that our community needs art, and that they could be the next generation of artists. Without grant funding awarded by the N.H. State Council on the Arts, this program would not have happened.

This year, the Council funded another arts-based program called (H)ART. Portsmouth Middle School partnered students with the (H)EAT campaign, an initiative that raises funds to provide heat and food assistance to needy families. Students learned about the needs and services in their community, the costs of groceries and home heating, and the science behind different heating systems.

Students worked for a full month with graphic designers in the classroom to design a visual print campaign launched downtown to help raise awareness for the (H)EAT initiative. They learned that art has a powerful voice, and that they can use it to engage with their community. Over 90 percent of these students said they would consider volunteering with these organizations again now that they have a connection.

Without the support of the Arts Council, these programs and hundreds of others across the state would not be possible. Dissolving the Council would diminish the future opportunities of thousands of youths—a great loss.

Art is not an “extra” that can be cut. We need some help from the creative minds in Concord to find alternative solutions to the budget bottom line.

Art & Inspiration

by Ben Anderson, director of the Prescott Park Arts Festival, recipient of the 2011 Governor’s Arts Award for Distinguished Arts Leadership

When I look back at my childhood, I feel blessed. Some of my earliest memories are of attending festivals, enjoying musicals, and experiencing the camaraderie that so quickly shows itself in the arts world. I remember how awestruck I was as I watched performers on stage, but even more by the excitement and inspiration these performers would send through the audience.

Today, I feel even more blessed. Not only have I been able to follow my dreams of producing festivals, but also I have found an organization that gives this same type of experience back to tens of thousands of children each summer. On any given night, I can look at the sea of people enjoying a show in Prescott Park and see the power of the arts.

I’m reminded of the importance of this community experience on a regular basis. It repeatedly shows itself: A beaming mother at a show proudly describes how she came to the festival as a young kid and is now sharing the experience with her own child; an 8-year-old auditions for a musical and selects a song from our “Peter Pan” production last summer that she clearly watched at least a dozen times.

What is most impressive is that Prescott Park is simply one of the myriad of great events, festivals, organizations, exhibits, galleries, theaters, museums, concerts, and performance groups that people find and enjoy throughout our state. And each and every last one of them is supported and impacted by the Department of Cultural Resources and our State Arts Council in one way or another.

How our elected officials could support the removal of all funding and ultimate disbanding of such a cornerstone in our quality of life is beyond me.

We have all had to tighten our belts, do more with less, and find creative ways to make ends meet. But, eradicating such crucial assets as the Department of Cultural Resources and our State Arts Council is both shortsighted and, quite simply, not a solution.

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