Random thoughts about watching, working and living in the arts, from HMS co-founder and executive producer Scott Silberstein. "In The Moment" offers a quick 60-second read about new ideas, events, shows and productions in the HMS world, and "Adventures In Yes" takes a deeper dive into how art and media reflect, define and inspire our world. Enjoy!

March 31, 2015


The key to arts advocacy may well start with these most powerful words: "Once upon a time..."

The Seldoms, speaking (and dancing) truth to power. (photo: William Frederking)

I love the happy coincidences that come from being a regular music, dance and theatergoer. Seems that almost every thing I see these days resonates with something that I just did or saw or felt.

Here’s the most recent case in point.

Last week, I went to Washington DC for Arts Advocacy Day, to lobby on behalf of the arts with Arts Alliance Illinois (our statewide advocacy organization) and Americans For The Arts (their national counterpart). It’s one of my favorite events of the year.

First, there's a day of meeting with colleagues to discuss important issues affecting the arts and arts-adjacent sectors which culminates with a Kennedy Center program that in recent years has featured Yo Yo Ma, Ben Folds, Alec Baldwin and Maureen Dowd, and this year included Common and Norman Lear (who I can only hope release an album of duets together one day).

And that's followed by a day of meetings on Capitol Hill with our state’s senators and representatives where we lobby about the issues we discussed the day earlier and urge legislative action to support arts funding, arts education and other key ideas and actions that are critically relevant to artists’ and arts organizations’ abilities to simply continue to function, if not thrive.

It’s a head spinning, intellectually thrilling and frankly emotionally engaging event, and it always takes me a day or two to calm down. And just as I had, I found myself sitting in the theater at the Museum of Contemporary Art watching Power Goes, the new politically-infused dance piece by The Seldoms inspired by President Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Artistic director Carris Hanson's choice to make an LBJ-inspired piece is... well, it's inspired. She and her Seldoms collaborators have noted well that the man not only had a way with words, especially when swearing or giving colorful instructions to his tailor (google that one, you won’t be disappointed), he also knew how to use his imposing physical presence to sway both intimate conversations and national conventions alike.

These qualities alone provide rich source material for both movement and text, but on top of that, Power Goes does a great job of balancing the Everyday Politics of The United States of America with the everyday politics of human interaction. Sometimes two women talking (and moving) about a new haircut is, in fact, an exercise in power and control. On the other hand, sometimes when two presidents have a conversation about how and why they govern they way they do, they’re really are talking about life on the most personal and intimate of levels.

What a heavy word this has now become: "politics." When we hear the word it, we tend to think about government, usually at its worst. But one of the definitions of politics is “the total complex of relations between people living in society,” and from that perspective, everything is politics.

So when I hear people say that they’re “not political,” I don't really know what they mean. I think they're expressing that they are either disheartened by, disinterested in, or disengaged from conversations and situations relating to government.

Okay. I can understand feeling disheartened. It’s easy to feel that way, when what goes on in our state and national capitols feels so desperately beyond our reach and influence. Many of us -- most, perhaps -- feel that our voices don’t hold a lot of sway in elections, and that because the process of governing is so infused with the kind of money most of us can only dream about, we simply don’t have the leverage to change anything. I don’t think that’s true (primarily because we in the electorate so rarely raise our voices to the level we could), but I can understand how easy it is to think it's true.

And I can therefore understand -- sort of -- how easy it is to feel that way and then disengage (for a little while, anyway).

But I can’t for the life of me understand being disinterested. How can we be disinterested in the people who are making huge decisions on our behalf -- in theory at our behest -- and ignore the process by which the everyday logistics of our lives are dictated and determined? If you’re somehow unaffected by decisions regarding where you can live, who you can marry, how much money you can make, whether or not you can get insurance, if or how you can buy a home, where you can send your kids to school and so forth, then you’re either not alive or not entirely conscious, neither of which are conditions that I hope you chose on purpose.

This stuff really matters, all of it. Here in Illinois, many artists and arts organizations are bemoaning, with good reason, the freezing of the Illinois Arts Council’s 2015 budget and the dramatic 20% budget slash that Gov. Rauner is proposing. I hope they all voted in the 2014 Gubernatorial election; those that didn’t bear some responsibility here.

And, not for nothin’, but here in Chicago there’s a certain mayoral election next week which could have a dramatic affect on how the arts, among other things, may or may not flourish in our town for years to come. So if you live in Chicago, or are just interested in a fascinating campaign, you’d do well to click here to check on the candidates’ positions on the arts. And then... vote.

That we vote, and for whom, clearly matters, and, as The Seldoms' Power Goes suggests with both wit and insight, we would all be better off by being more engaged in political interactions of all shapes and sizes.

Which brings me back to Arts Advocacy Day, an event during which Arts Alliance Illinois and Americans For The Arts make social and political engagement not only possible but also easy and frankly exciting. Critical issues, and the importance of our participation in explaining these issues to our elected officials, are made to feel every bit as vital as they really are.

It's not just funding for the National Endowment for the Arts or arts education initiatives that are at stake. There are also other hugely impactful issues and if you're reading this I promise they affect you deeply.

Every arts organization I know, for example, from the biggest to smallest, relies on putting video content online for the world to see. They’d naturally want access to a free and open Internet that treats all users equally. This is the issue known as Net Neutrality. Lots of big companies want preferential treatment for their content, resulting in the content of companies like Netflix getting preferential access to the Internet’s “fast lane” while video by The Seldoms is relegated to a “slow lane.” My friend Laura Eason writes for both House of Cards and Lookingglass Theater Company; I want access to see both of those with the same speed and quality, no matter how big or small the presenter of the content. How can anyone interested in the arts not be motivated to support Net Neutrality laws that maintain a free and open Internet?

Here’s another big one. Most arts organizations rely on anywhere from a few to a few hundred wireless frequencies (known as “The White Spaces”) to perform their shows or hold their events effectively and safely. How else are you going to hear singers and actors that need amplification? How else can the people backstage communicate not only to run the show but also to make sure that no one gets hurt in the process? Big Comm wants the FCC to auction these frequencies off to the highest bidder, without any considerations for the displaced arts organizations. Somehow, in a bidding war, I don’t think that The Seldoms are going to able to outbid Verizon. (It’s interesting to note that this issue also affects professional sports and mega-churches; politics does indeed make for strange bedfellows, and odd as the mix is, it’s good to have these well-funded sectors as allies on this issue.) Everyone who produces, performs, patronizes or participates in live performances should be terribly concerned that big communications companies want the same wireless frequencies for the devices they’re selling that arts organizations are using and relying on right now.

How about this one? As the US is opening up a new relationship with Cuba, it’s clear that the arts may be one of the best bridges between our nation and theirs, and that our arts organizations may be our best cultural ambassadors.That’s why it was so great to have The Chicago Jazz Philharmonic join our Illinois delegation at Arts Advocacy Day this year, so that they could provide to our elected officials compelling evidence of how powerful is the idea of cultural exchange.

Our collective efforts have been fruitful. Even in the handful I’ve years I’ve been participating, I’ve seen some cool things happen. A couple of years ago I was impressed to see that after our delegation visited Democratic Congressman Bobby Rush, he introduced a bill on the floor of the House that protects the White Spaces for the arts. Just last week, we asked Republican Congressman Bob Dold to sign on to the Congressional Arts Caucus, and not only did he do it, he made a photo op out of it and sent it out via Twitter and Instagram, tipping his cap to the arts and to the Alliance.

We in Illinois are fortunate to have a lot of supporters among our elected officials. Senator Durbin and Representatives Schakowsky, Quigley, Davis, Duckworth and Rush among others are solidly in our corner. But just because they are inclined to support the arts doesn’t mean they don’t need our assistance to effectively represent and protect our interests. We in the arts have something they need. Something that is easy for us to give and that comes very naturally to us.

They need our stories.

That should be easy for people working in the arts, right? We are, if nothing else, storytellers. So let’s tell them our stories.

Stories about how the arts have impacted our lives, personally and professionally.

Stories about how our work in the arts is impacting the lives of others.

Stories about how the arts ennoble us, inform our minds, fulfill our souls and inspire our hearts.

Stories about how they keep people employed, how they make our neighborhoods and schools better, and how they generate the kind of social and economic activity against which it is impossible to argue.

Stories they can tell to colleagues, share in emails, and embed in speeches.

That’s it. That’s what they want.

Our stories.

So, how do we tell them? First, make sure you know who your senators and representatives are. It’s easy – just go to www.opencongress.org, enter your address, and you’ll get all the contact info you need. (And do the same for your local and statewide reps, too.)

And then write these people who you pay to represent you. Email them. Call them. Tell them your stories. Tell them who you are. Tell them what you do. Tell them why you do it.

Make sure they understand the impact the arts have had on your life, your job, your friends, your family, and your education.

Help them understand why NEA funding is important, and how arts education makes a critical difference to our students’ performance and ability to perform well after graduation. Make it clear that your livelihood relies on a free and open Internet. Make it easier for them to understand the White Spaces issue, and why it must be addressed fairly and immediately.

Ask any elected official or their staffers and they will tell you that 10-15 emails about the same subject, especially if they show up within a week or so of each other, will result in that issue getting some time and attention. We all have enough friends to make that happen daily – right now, if you so choose -- so don’t be afraid to recruit some of them. You’ll be doing them a favor.

These are ideas and actions that matter to every single person, not just those in the arts but those affected by them (which, let's face it, is every breathing person on the planet).

Don’t take my word for it; just ask professional artist and good citizen Carrie Hanson.

Remember: no story is too small.

Now… go tell one.

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