Spokes & Mirrors by Steven Leigh Morris

The Curious Contradictions of Fighting for the Arts in D.C.

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We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Facts + + +

[dropcap]Yes[/dropcap], Gertude, we really do live in a post-fact era. And Washington, D.C. may be Ground Zero — the target for whatever missile it was that blew up old fashioned respect for empirical evidence. I spent a couple of days there last week trying to make our case — our case being, why what we do in the arts matters, and why the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting all matter to what we do, and who we are. In President Trump’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2017-2018, each of these federal agencies received a budget total of zero. Now it’s up to Congress to undo the mess, and it’s up to us to persuade Congress why undoing the mess is worth the effort.

In making the case last year for LA STAGE Alliance’s vision of our future, I cited a mountain of evidence in this publication about the impact of the arts on local businesses, on youth (increased literacy and cognitive development, lower crime rates, higher test scores), and so forth. I cited statistics and sources. But speaking the language of empiricism in D.C., well, I didn’t do it so much, because I probably would have made more headway speaking Aramaic. This is not just intuition, it’s the advice given to an overflow crowd in a conference room of D.C.’s Omni-Shoreham Hotel, on the day before we splintered off to visit various members of Congress.

This advice came from various speakers from Americans for the Arts, the national non-profit organization that implementing its “Arts Advocacy Day” — the reason for the convening in D.C. — every year for 30 years. The delegates come from all over the country — 700 of them this year, 200 more than the prior year, and the largest turnout ever for this event. Obviously, the alarm bell had sounded when Trump announced his budget.

I was part of the hefty California Delegation. Delegates from Northern California were organized by the intrepid Brad Erickson, my counterpart (Executive Director) at theater service organization, Theatre Bay Area. Delegates from Southern California were organized by Sofia Klatzker, Executive Director of the local advocacy non-profit, Arts for LA. By “organized,” I mean the diligent setting up of appointments for small groups of us to meet with various Congress members (their staffs, actually) in order to make our case in 20-minute shots. These were like auditions. The staff already knew the dialogue. They’d seen all these plays before. But rather than the motive being to be cast, the intention was to persuade our representatives in the House and Senate to help fund the NEA to the tune of $155 million (rather than White House’s suggestion of zero), thus allowing the agency to keep pace with inflation. That, among other agenda items.

Brad Erickson, Theatre Bay Area
These Congressional staffers wanted stories, not facts. The most powerful tool of connection is a powerful story, we were told. Repeatedly.

Of course, the right to tell stories is what we were supposed to be defending, but in 2017, this presents a bit of paradox. Perhaps it has something to do with stories being fictions — windows onto truth rather than truth itself, as well as windows onto lies.

I had of late felt subsumed, even suffocated, by fictions and distortions spewed by pundits and press secretaries, all trying to pass off their spew as true. I found myself hungering for the real deal, the kind of empirical truth that’s certified by being measured or counted. Maybe it’s like hungering for Walter Cronkite, a reliable and authoritative voice in the wilderness.

When arguing for the integrity of the arts, do we persuade through fiction or through actual measurements? I keep hearing W.B. Yeats’ adage, referring to all that folklore he gathered with Lady Gregory as they crossed the Irish countryside together: Facts are lies and myths are true. Then I hear generations of scientists turning in their graves. (Among other federal agencies on the chopping block are those that conduct scientific research.) Once a culture gets those pesky facts out of the way, the culture wars become a series of battles between competing narratives. Scientists, or at least credible scientists, represent the kind of studied neutrality that restores sanity. But in 2017 Washington D.C., studied neutrality is like civil discourse, a relic from a former century.

Prepping for Congress + + +

In front of the crowd at the Omni-Shoreham, all seated around white-clothed tables, Americans for the Arts’ ebullient Vice President of Research and Policy, Randy Cohen, made a case for facts, before he made a stronger case for stories.

They’ll tell you that they support the arts, but they believe that the federal government should have no role in that support — that it’s up to the private sector. Cohen rolled out statistics showing how the arts were already hanging by a thread. Corporate support of the arts accounts for less than 5% of its budgets, and foundation support not much more. Individual giving, meanwhile, is tethered to the stock market and people’s senses of financial security and insecurity. Government support, however modest, should at least be dependable.

Most of Cohen’s facts were measurements of perception, which in this era, pass for facts. Via Cohen, the following came from the global marketing and research company, Ipsos:

Should the public payment for the Arts go from the current 45 cents per year (per person) to $1 per year?

55% of the public either strongly or somewhat agreed.
18% were neutral
18% either somewhat or strongly disagreed
8% had no opinion.

The public’s perceived value of art is increasing, Cohen continued:

64% of respondents felt that art held value for pure pleasure.
63% felt that its value was also in lifting people’s spirits
62% felt that it helps us understand other cultures
60% felt that it makes us more creative
73% felt that provides a positive experience in a troubled world
67% felt that it helped bridge divides
87% felt that it helped add value to a community

The obvious strategy here, for Congress’ benefit, was to argue that voting against the NEA is voting against the majority of constituents, regardless of their affiliation to any political party.

Cohen moved on to economic prosperity statistics, which came from the U.S. Department of Commerce, as well as Dun and Bradstreet:

In 2014, the arts generated $730 billion in revenue, which was 4.2 per cent of the GDP, up from $641 billion in 2008. This makes the arts a larger revenue generator than either agriculture or tourism.

703k businesses are arts related, which is 3.4% of all businesses in the U.S., which is huge. Defending the arts is a pro-business position. Who could argue with that?

For the impacts of arts education, Cohen cited UCLA’s James Catterrall, Professor Emeritus at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies,
showing how arts engagement leads to improved grade point averages, test scores and a lower drop-out rate.

And, Cohen added, if anybody tries to counter those facts with the ruse that these studies measured only privileged students, the research shows that for schools in underserved communities, the disparity of success between those who engage with the arts and those who don’t is even wider.

Tell Congress that access to the arts is a “civil rights issue,” Cohen urged. The evidence is there. “And the public gets it,” he continued. “88% of the public” already understands how the arts can transform lives.

It’s one thing to cite such a statistic, but one story of how arts transformed one life will carry even more weight, Cohen added. He told the story of Thomas Südhorf, the 2013 Nobel Prize recipient for medicine, who said that his most influential teacher was not in the sciences or even in medicine; it was the guy who taught him how to play bassoon — that it was music, under his teacher’s tutelage, that gave him the habits and rigor and comprehension of musical shapes and patterns, found also in the physical world, that would allow him to flourish in medicine.

Later in the day, California Delegation Captain Brad Erickson pulled the West Coasters from the noisy conference room to the comparative seclusion of the hotel lobby, where he gave talking points for visiting Congress the next day. Among those visiting Congress members who represent districts in Northern California, in addition to Erickson and his colleague Rachel Fink, was California Lawyers for the Arts Executive Director Alma Robinson, as well as Maria Jenson, director of San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art. For Southern California, I was joined by Dance Resource Center’s Executive Director Felicia Rosenfeld, the director of arts-education non-profit Dramatic Results Christi Wilkins, and Actors’ Equity Association Western Regional Councilor Kim Huber, among others.

The messaging we were instructed to carry in support of the NEA was intended to counter the mistruths espoused by the opposition — example: the federal agency funds elitists (artists) who serve equally elitist constituents (audiences). In truth, Erickson pointed out, 40% of the funds distributed by the NEA go to state and local agencies in order to ensure access to the arts at a local level, specifically in rural and underserved communities, and to the children of those communities — the antithesis of an elitist program.

But the members of Congress representing California will probably already be on our side, Erickson explained. So be ready to use the precious time opposing the proposed elimination of the charitable tax deduction, on which so many non-profits depend throughout the year, but particularly for year-end contributions. Taking that away, and the NEA, would be a double blow.

Congress + + +

Pulling out of the DC Metro at Union Station, the dome of Congress came into view at street-level. Inside, Supreme Court Justice nominee Neil Gorsuch was facing his second day of questioning in the Senate. A parade of Gorsuch supporters passed by. One woman held a paper cutout of the nominee and perched it on her shoulders. Another young woman by her side, from StudentsForLife.com, held a sign that read “We don’t need Planned Parenthood.” So despite Gorsuch remaining judiciously neutral about his positions in the hearings, his supporters on the street held a different view of his “objectivity.”

About a quarter mile from the Dome, all pedestrians were stopped by traffic cops, who allowed a stream of black limos, some with flashing blue lights, to pass. In one of the cars was President Trump, rolling into Congress to lobby for the ill-fated American Healthcare Act.

I admit to some peevishness that the President of the United States was going to make me late for my first appointment of the day — a 9:30 a.m. materials drop-off in the office of Senator Kamala Harris. But none of this mattered, because the hold-up was a mere five-minutes, and Senator Harris wasn’t in her office anyway. Our log had it marked as “STOP BY, NO APPOINTMENT.” Rachel Fink, Kim Huber, Christi Wilkins and I dropped off a package of materials, and we all posed like high schoolers on a field trip in front of Harris’ name engraved on her office door.

My next appointment was at 10 a.m., across the edifice in the offices of the House, where we were scheduled to meet with Elizabeth Arevalo and Jack d’Annibale, staff for Congressman Ted Lieu (California, 33rd District). Rosenfeld and I hightailed it through the building’s subterranean, byzantine maze of tunnels, including an animated trip on a kind of mini-coal train that whisks people back and forth in the bowels of the Senate and its adjoining offices. At about 9:58, we pulled up, breathless, to the Canon Building office on the House Side. Once inside, Arevalo and d’Annibale were models of decorum, and this was not going to be what anybody could describe as a “hard sell.” (One week later, Lieu would publically shred Attorney General Jeff Sessions for his threat to withhold Justice Department funding to sanctuary cities. He would also refer to the President as “evil” for saying that Obamacare should be allowed to explode, without a trace of a workable replacement in the offing.)

With the four of us sitting comfortably around a table, Rosenfeld, an L.A. West-sider, took a lead from d’Annibale’s interest in Hollywood (he had once worked for Disney Studios), while also pressing on the NEA’s programs using the arts to help military veterans recover from battle trauma (Lieu is himself a military veteran), while Areval scribbled notes onto a pad. I chimed in with the benefits that arts engagement has on youth. Rosenfeld followed-up with the plea to save the charitable tax deduction. And everyone nodded, almost absurdly, as though to say, “Isn’t it nice that we all agree.” We were of course fortifying our own encampment.

That’s when d’Annibale cut to the chase: “Do you have any stories that the Congressman can use to persuade his colleagues who may not see things our way — emotional stories, inspirational stories of how the arts changed people’s lives.” I said I would go to our membership, solicit such stories, and send them to the Congressman.

Areval then asked if we could weigh in that week with our recommended appropriations for the NEA, since that’s what the Congressman was working on. Rosenfeld said she would handle that, and she did.

Before we left, d’Annibale noted that there was considerable bi-partisan support for the NEA, and that it might “take a hit” but probably wouldn’t be going away.

At about 11:14 a.m., Rosenfeld and I approached the office of Congressman Tony Cardenas (California, 29th District), where Huber and Wilkins were waiting outside the door for our 11:15 a.m. appointment.

We were met by staffer Anna Hevia who, at her boss’ urging, had formed a ballet company in D.C. Cardenas dropped by during our meeting, and the told story of how, when he hired Hevia — “I knew I was going to hire her anyway” — he told her that a condition of her employment was that she “get back” into ballet, which she had studied as a child and abandoned. Hevia turned slightly red during Cardenas’ story. I thought it might be from embarrassment, but, as she later explained, she had a slightly different version of events: that she had danced in college and had never dropped out. The other part was true. The Congressman was turning her into a kind of myth. Politics: The art of persuasion.

By now, we had our roles down pat: Wilkins made a plug for arts education, which I echoed with the impacts of the arts on youth. Huber, representing the labor union perspective, made a case for jobs. Rosenfeld made a case for therapy. All of this Hevia jotted down in a notepad, but then stopped writing and listened politely. She’d seen this play before. She could probably recite it from memory.

Huber, sensing this and brimming throughout the day with an appealing vivacity, asked how we could help Cardenas make the case. “Yes, a lot of people ask us that,” Hevia replied, and thought for a moment.

She then noted that it was unlikely that the NEA or the NEH or the CPB would be de-funded. “There’s too much bipartisan support for these agencies,” she noted. It’s important to stay vigilant, she added, but there’s a gaping divide between a president’s budget proposal, and an actual budget.

I asked if it would help if we provided stories, maybe videos, for the Congressman to make his appeal. Yes, that would be good, videos especially, she said.

Before we left, she took group photos of us with the Congressman, by the nameplate on his office door.

Steven Leigh Morris, Kim Huber, Congressman Tony Cardenas and Felicia Rosenfeld

The record showed that both Linda T. Sanchez and Maxine Waters had a history of voting for bills that reduced the NEA budget slightly (though not eliminated it). Perhaps their priorities lay elsewhere. So this was no slam dunk, but our group had done what was necessary, we’d played our roles is this story in defense of stories.

My final meeting of the day was with Congresswoman Linda T. Sachez (California 38th District), and the design started to look increasingly familiar. Like watching Hamlet for the fifth time.

Public support for the arts: To be, or not to be?

Oh yes, that’s a play about a guy haunted by a vision, but he doesn’t know what to believe. So how does he cement his resolve? He puts on a play. He tells a story, and waits for the reaction.

If you have stories of how the arts have changed lives, for children, for elders, for you, no matter, please send it to us at info@lastagealliance.com. If you can send a video message, that’s even better. We’ll make sure it gets to Congressmen Lieu and Caredenas’ offices promptly. These are the kinds of tools they need to save the NEA.

Steven Leigh Morris

Steven Leigh Morris

Steven is the Executive Director of LA STAGE Alliance, and is the founding editor of the community-funded digital arts venture Stage Raw (www.stageraw.com). Morris chaired the Jury for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2012, and served on that Jury in 2011. He received the Critic of the Year prize for his print reviews by the National Entertainment Journalism Awards in 2011.