It was a brand new crop of celebvocates making their Capitol Hill debut Tuesday to lobby for arts funding. You could tell they were freshmen because the clothes were all over the map: Beltway-gray suits on Melina Kanakaredes and Nigel Lythgoe; others in showbiz flair, like Clay Walker’s cowboy hat and Ben Folds’s untucked red shirt.
Also, their early-a.m. enthusiasm. “Turn to the person on your left and say, ‘I love the arts!’” actor Hill Harper exhorted a hearing room full of boosters. “Turn back and say, ‘What are you willing to do about it?’”
Every spring, Americans for the Arts marshalls a delegation of cheerleaders to blitz the Hill with a plea for more NEA and NEH funding. While some famous faces return — Alec Baldwin is a perennial — the group mixes it up with fresh faces every year, so as to tap into as many members of Congress as possible, the group’s president and CEO Robert L. Lynch told us. The stars “may live in Hollywood, but they come from Ohio or they come from New Jersey.”
And each had a heartfelt story about what arts funding had done in their home towns, and in their lives.
“If it wasn’t for the NEA in Akron, Ohio, I wouldn’t have gotten my start,” said Kanakaredes, a former “CSI” star, recalling her debut, at 8, in a community theater production.
Johnathon Schaech, the Baltimore-bred actor, said he struggled in school until he took an art class. “It triggered my brain! It let me read and do math.” Omar Benson Miller, the big guy who plays the art-theft specialist on “CSI: Miami,” bemoaned that he’d have had an easier time getting a scholarship for sports than acting, and mourned the end of a theater-outreach group he once toured with, shuttered for lack of funding. British-born “American Idol” producer Lythgoe warned the U.S. is losing its “musical heritage”: Fantasia had never heard of George Gershwin before she came on the show, he said, and another contestant sang the National Anthem as “José, can you see?”
Baldwin, an old hand at the lobbying thing, was all big-brotherly teasing with the crew. (“Don’t you hate these ‘CSI’ people?” he groaned when the third was introduced. “Those g-d ‘CSI’ people with their ratings!”) Any advice for the newbies? “Alec did give me advice on dating,” joked Schaech. “I gave him advice on Federal Aviation Administration cell phone rules,” Baldwin shot back. (Bless him, he is owning that story.)
Then it was time to visit lawmakers. Eager in the a.m., the mood was a little dampened later. “Why don’t we have artists that are Republicans here?” Schaech wondered. Singer/songwriter Folds said he was struck by Washington’s “disconnect” from the rest of the country and the futility of the budget debate: “People who are in an indescribable position,” he said, “and feel like they can only say ‘no.’”
It’s Alec Baldwin Week in Washington! Read earlier: Alec Baldwin at National Press Club on arts funding, Twitter, and American Airlines, 4/17/12
Read more about: Celebvocates in Washington