Random thoughts about watching, working and living in the arts, from HMS co-founder and executive producer Scott Silberstein.
Yesterday, I attended Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky's "Join The Resistance" rally at the Broadway Armory in Chicago, a stirring call to stand up for American values and against those who confuse those values for "whoever has the most toys wins."
Congresswoman Schakowsky, who has been representing Illinois' 9th Congressional District ("the fightin' 9th!") since 1999, is what you want in a congressional representative: smart, determined, responsive, pro-active and a genuine "speak truth to power" kind of person, no matter which party holds the White House, the Senate or the House of Representatives. I've been meeting with Jan for many years to talk about arts-related legislation, and can tell you that without question she's one of our fiercest advocates, someone who actively walks the walk when it comes to the arts (and, frankly, everything on which she works).
So it was unsurprising, deeply gratifying and extremely energizing that after the rally, she challenged me to help rally the arts community to create messages and take action that would not only effectively tell the good stories that need to be told (and who better to tell stories than people in the arts?) but also to make the telling and hearing of those stories fun and exciting.
So, as The Who once sang, Let's See Action.
So what does that mean? What can people who work in and around the arts, or simply love them passionately and recognize their power and their reflection of the best of humanity, do? Given our limited time and resources, what positive steps can we take? There must be some, because whether you wear the red, the blue or the purple, there's something for you to be concerned about as this new era begins.
Passivity is not an option. We must be positive and pro-active. I have complete sympathy for anyone who’s been protesting the outcomes of the election or the Electoral College. I understand why people have marched through streets, shut down buildings and flooded social media with angry, despondent cries of “Not My President.” If I can't get to Washington to march on January 21, I'll be marching in Chicago.
But I worry that this will be the extent of what we do. Many of us are deeply upset about the direction our government is taking, and I suspect many more will feel that way in the coming weeks and months, especially if they voted for Mr. Trump. But the fact is, he is, or soon will be, my President, and, if you live in America, yours. To say otherwise would be markedly un-American, not to mention short-sighted, petulant, counterproductive and the height of hypocrisy. Those of us who supported President Obama took rightful offense to Americans who said that he was not their President. Those who did not support Mr. Trump's candicacy, and I was among them, should remember that now.
More to the point, that kind of thinking risks letting ourselves off the hook too easily. It allows us to feel righteous and superior, which not only discourages us from participating in the process, it essentially removes us from the process altogether, on a volunteer basis. It's a haughty and wildly unproductive form of surrender.
I'm not suggesting that we shouldn't protest things that matter to us. We should, absolutely, and I am eager to see the constructive and creative ways that happens. That said, I'm more eager to see how we proactively work together for positive change, even if the only result is that key issues that matter to us are represented by greater numbers. That alone is huge. That alone is an election.
If you're an arts person, your mandate to take positive action is huge. Most of us who work in or around the arts, or support them in any way -- including being audience members, which for my money is one of the most important ways anyone can support the arts -- are, no matter what our political affiliations and philosophical predispositions, unnerved by a new administration whose leader has expressed a confusing and often contemptuous regard for free, creative and artistic expression.
The arts are about truth. They are about empathy. They are about democracy. Driven by both individual and collective expression, the arts are as “of, for and by the people” as it gets. Steeped in both establishing and following social behaviors of profound good and deep moral standing, their absence or diminishment makes this world scarier, more vulnerable, less beautiful, less democratic and decidely less human. A president who feels he can bully and abuse the arts, as he has done to so many other individuals, communities and entire sectors of business, is a president to whom we must stand up.
Confronted by this new and unprecedented reality, how do we, as vital and active participants in the arts, respond? Especially if our time and resources are limited?
I have an idea about that. It's incredibly easy and won’t cost you a dime. It's a small step, and I promise you won’t find yourself writing a check or being forced to volunteer time you may not have. (You can always do those things if you like, but that's not what I'm asking of you now.)
Join two email lists.
The first one is the e-mail lists for Americans for the Arts, your nationwide arts advocacy and lobbying group. The second is for your statewide arts advocacy organization (if like me you live in Illinois, it's Arts Alliance Illinois; if you live elsewhere, in a moment I'll give you a link to find out who represents you).
Sounds easy? It is.
Sounds too small to make any kind of difference? Read on.
Lots of folks in the arts don't realize that we have our own lobbying groups working year-round to advance legislative efforts vital to our ability to carry on as working artists, arts organizations and arts-adjacent companies and individuals (in other words, all of us).
But we do, and they're terrific. I see firsthand what Americans for the Arts and Arts Alliance Illinois do for us, as an individual member of the former and a board member of the latter. I'm proud and impressed by the way these organizations serve, advance and lead the network of groups and individuals who cultivate, promote, sustain, and support the arts. They work hard to ensure that everyone has access to their transformative power. Through research, close collaboration with policymakers and public agencies, and robust communications, AFTA, AAI and other state organizations advance widespread support of all the arts, enhance the health of the arts & cultural sector, and foster a climate in which the broadest spectrum of artistic expression can flourish. When have these efforts ever been more important than now?
And there are a lot of current and critical issues over which Congress have authority to legislate, right now, including:
• arts funding on the local, state and national levels (and we who live in Illinois continue to learn the hard way about what happens when stage funding is held up or disappears);
• arts education policy and funding (and isn’t this more vital than ever? Isn’t it imperative that we provide models for creative, collaborative and cooperative thinking as early as possible?)
• tax policy (like whether people can take tax deductions for contribution to not-for-profits — and yes, this is one of the things that could go away, which would be devastating for our field)
• tech issues (like a free and open internet, which is critical to our field and which incoming cabinet members oppose; access to wireless microphone frequencies, which is in deep jeopardy and which could hurt or cripple many arts organizations; and online “bots” that allow online scalpers to gauge unwitting ticket buyers and undermine the credibility of our companies);
• cultural exchange programs through the State Department;
• improving the visa process for foreign guest artists;
• supporting programs that promote health through the arts, including veterans, children, and people suffering from dementia, Parkinson’s and other serious medical conditions;
• tax fairness for visual artists, which would allow them to take a deduction for the fair market value of their work when they donate it to charitable collecting institutions;
• and many more important issues that impact each and everyone one of us who works in, supports or simply loves the arts.
Huge stuff, right?
To help AFTA, AAI and other statewide organizations do their jobs effectively, we need to add as many supporters and voices as possible to their efforts. And that’s why I'm asking you to sign up for a couple of e-blast lists.
Here’s all that will happen when you do. You’ll get a couple of extra emails every month that will bring you up to date on important issues that affect our lives and our work. The information you receive will make it easier for all of us to protect and nurture the arts. It will provide insights into how our elected officials — who, we should never forget, work for us — deal with the arts and arts-related issues, which offers keen insights into how they govern in general.
This will make it easier to connect and work with your fellow artists, advocates and activists, and will go a long way to make sure that we will be able to continue the work that we and the world both cherish.
We are stronger than we think, and, in even greater and more enthusiastic numbers, we can be more influential than many of us know. Ours is a field that is not only a vital cultural, education and social force, but also a powerful economic driver. The arts are a multi-billion-dollar industry that employs more than four million people and generates more than $9 billion in federal tax revenue (and nearly twice that amount in state and local tax revenue). When legislators understand our economic impact, they tend to pay more attention to the vital social, cultural and educational issues about which we care so passionately.
Any legislative effort is an uphill struggle, but I’ve seen firsthand that Senators and Representatives do respond to our efforts. I’ve sat in congressional offices with fellow arts constituents, collectively presented our wants and needs, and then seen legislation supporting those wants and needs introduced on the floor of the House of Representatives. (You can, too… anyone is welcome to participate in these kinds of advocacy efforts in DC, state capitals and local communities.)
During our visits to DC with AFTA and the Alliance, we've asked our elected reps and their staffs this question: from how many people do you need to hear about any given issue for it to be given priority in the congressperson’s legislative agenda?
The answer: on average, between ten and fifteen people.
Between ten and fifteen people.
That blew us away. Just ten to fifteen emails or calls about the same issue during one week, and that issue gets on the boss’ desk. The cast of a small theater, dance or music performance could do that in one fell swoop. Imagine what could happen if our numbers were greater and our voices were louder.
Rest assured, if you sign up for these e-blasts, your email address won’t be shared with other agencies or individuals. It’s just us and our arts lobbyists, sharing information and working together to protect our field and the ever-important right to free speech, creative expression and free assembly.
If you want to get involved by coming to advocacy events, like coming to Washington DC for National Arts Advocacy Day (which this year is March 20-21) or other local community events, that would be fantastic. Not required... but fantastic.
And if not, please consider me your point person on helping to get issues that matter to you in front of our advocacy groups and our elected representatives and their staffs. I’d love work side by side with you, and if that isn’t feasible for you, then I’d love to be a rabble-rouser on your behalf. Seriously, bring me some rabble. Watch me rouse.
Having just witnessed a successful presidential campaign in which terrible stories were told and succeeded because they were conveyed with the bombast and apocalyptic urgency of a “Transformers” movie (and because better stories were told less than successfully), can there be any doubt that we have a more-urgent-than-ever need for a good story? Told well? By good storytellers?
And that’s what we need to do, together, right now.
Many of us will want to do more than this, so that we can actively rise to Jan's challenge. I can't wait to hear from you and brainstorm how we're going to do that.
But first, so that we can all take this first step together, I ask you to please join me. Click here to join the Americans for the Arts e-blast list; here for Arts Alliance Illinois; and, if you live elsewhere, here for the link to the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, where you can find contact info for your state organization.
Individually, this is just a small step. But taken together… it's a march.