There’s nothing like a crisis to fire up a crowd.
Some 700 cultural leaders gathered in Washington this week to visit lawmakers and make the case for federal funding of the arts. It was a record showing for Arts Advocacy Day and the direct result of President Trump’s call to kill funding for four federal agencies.
For two hours Tuesday morning, representatives of arts groups, businesses, school districts and universities listened to dozens of speakers pump them up with slogans, cheers and data points demonstrating the power of arts to change lives, educated children and revitalize communities.
“We need to heal our country with the arts, that’s what we’re here to do,” actor Ben Vereen said. “Our children are depending on us.”
Any hint of “this again?” fatigue was wiped out by campaign-style speeches from Congressional backers, Republicans and Democrats, many members of the Arts, Humanities, Cultural, STEAM and Public Broadcasting caucuses.
“It’s about enjoyment and inspiration and jobs, but it’s also about our humanity,” Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said. “This is about America and who we are as a nation.”
Ford Foundation President Darren Walker gave a lecture Monday night at the Kennedy Center, where he urged the audience to fight for the $970 million budgets of the National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Institute of Museum and Library Services,
“Art is not a privilege. It is the soul of our country, the beating heart of our humanity,” Walker said. “And in these times, these menacing, perilous challenging times, we need the arts and humanities more than ever before.”
Walker outlined reasons to support government funding and rebutted the rhetoric of those who want to see it eliminated. The arts are not luxuries, but are essential to community life in all sizes and geographies. They are an economic power and an emotional balm.
“All people also yearn for beauty and they also long for grace,” he said. “And the notion that low-income and working-class people do not derive meaning from the arts? That notion is insulting and ignorant.”
The national advocacy event – sponsored by Americans for the Arts – is the opening drive in a push that will stretch through the summer as lawmakers hammer out a massive federal spending plan.
“We understand what a long and complicated process this is, to go from a proposed budget to actual action in Congress,” said Rusty Foley of the Arizona Citizens for the Arts. “I would say there is deep concern but I think some cautious optimism.”
Actors Brian Stokes Mitchell and Gabrielle Ruiz were among the artists who were meeting with lawmakers and their staffs. Mitchell said the fight begins with awareness.
“It’s an optics issue. Like fish swimming in water, we are swimming in the arts. But we take them for granted,” he said.
Sen. Tom Udall, (D-NM) thanked the participants for making the journey, saying their in-person efforts have great influence lawmakers. “We’ve been through this before,” he said as he was leaving the breakfast rally. “But there’s a lot of energy here.”
The event was the first for Laurie Baefsky, executive director of the Alliance for the Arts in Research Universities, who traveled from Michigan. She described her series of meetings with lawmakers and their staffs as wonderful.
“It’s not a partisan issue,” she said. “We have complex problems and we need an integrated approach to get at the best solutions.”