"I know how to keep 18 balls in the air if I want to," said Mayor Marion Barry Jr., when queried about his commitment to pushing through last week's recommendations by the Mayor's Blue Ribbon Committee for Promotion of the Arts and Economic Development. The 46-page report "Arts Space," formulated by 64 of the city's arts movers and shakers, was presented to Barry at the National Theatre Friday morning by executive cochairs Peggy Cooper Cafritz and Mortimer Zuckerman.
Considering the city's problems with crime, drugs and wrongdoing by public officials, would it be, well, impolite to suggest that arts, traditionally a back-burner priority for many politicians, might not be at the forefront of the mayor's schedule?
"Ridiculous," exclaimed Barry. "I believe in the arts. We don't just want a series of office buildings downtown, we want quality of life. When we suffer, arts and culture make us feel better about ourselves."
The committee members were clearly feeling better about themselves after finishing, at the mayor's direction, their look at the contribution of the arts to the economic development of the city. The handsomely packaged report came to some unsurprising conclusions about the state of the arts in the District of Columbia: not enough money, not enough space, not enough organization and, mostly, not enough help from the city government.
The committee wasn't shy about saying what it thought was needed. The report calls for beefing up the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities; creating a nonprofit Municipal Arts Assistance Fund using, in part, assessments on commercial development; and establishing a loan fund to help arts groups with rising rents. The nervousness of all arts groups about real estate prices downtown -- a problem faced by nearly every major American city -- was given particular attention in the report.
"We have our opportunities now to help these arts groups thrive in downtown," said Cafritz. "And to let it slip away would be a tragedy. We will have to sound a consistent battle cry."
But making the words reality will take more than a battle cry. The arts assessment on developers will be a particular stickler, so the committee judiciously brought on board megadeveloper Zuckerman, president of Boston Properties. Zuckerman is usually on the other side of the wrecking ball and may indeed have been "seeking political amnesty" in Washington, as Cafritz quipped, considering his controversial battle in New York City over proposed construction of a superbuilding at Columbus Circle that foes say will overshadow Central Park.
Zuckerman seemed to get along well with the Washington crowd and said he would do his part to convince other developers that providing for arts spaces is a better deal than adding, say, another boutique to the newest mall. "So long as the burden is shared," said the Zuckerman. "There is a payback in the long term, because a quality of life added by arts improves any development."
Zuckerman, who knows the bottom line when he sees it, hit on the right word: payback. One of the most important and shaky arguments in "Arts Space" is the notion that a stronger arts community will bring with it ancillary benefits, such as arts-supply stores, restaurants and other places audiences will patronize.
"The arts are an industry that must be capitalized," said Cafritz to an audience that included Washington Project for the Arts' Jock Reynolds, Woolly Mammoth Theatre's Howard Shalwitz, National Museum of Women in the Arts' Wilhelmina Holladay, District Curators' Bill Warrell and Washington Performing Arts Society's managing director emeritus Patrick Hayes. .
Cafritz also demanded more attention from the news media. "The arts will not succeed without an increasing amount of press coverage from every segment of the media," she said. "We expect the same kind of criticism -- and boosterism -- that the Washington Redskins get."