Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Dan Hunter speaks at Searts

The arts have only been a public sector issue for the past generation, Massachusetts arts advocate Dan Hunter said at a public talk Tuesday, a public sector issue only since the founding of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities in the 1960s.* And so those of us who care about the arts are still getting used to treating it as public sector issues are treated – and lobbying for it. Over and over we need to insist on the importance of the arts, he said, until the message becomes as familiar as a Coke ad, until the arts are no longer seen as a luxury.

“This is the value of our society,” Hunter said, “and the way we have to support that value is through public investment.”

Hunter, the executive director of the Boston-based nonprofit MAASH (Massachusetts Advocates for the Arts, Sciences and Humanities), is one of the chief advocates for public arts funding in Massachusetts. If you’re associated with any Massachusetts arts advocacy group, they probably regularly forward you his updates on legislative doings.

And so I went to see him talk in Gloucester, where he was the featured speaker at Tuesday night’s annual meeting of Searts (Society for the Encouragement of the Arts), Cape Ann’s version of one of those “creative economy” arts advocacy groups.

The problem with the “creative economy” mafia is that they focus on “economy” and forget about the “creative.” But Searts is a good example of how a small, scrappy organization can add excitement to a community. Now about four years old, it sponsors public artist talks and art history lectures and provides grants for local artist-business collaborations. It has used state and local grant funds to financially support the two-year-old Gloucester New Arts Festival, run by Gloucester dancer Sarah Slifer (I’ve exhibited work in this festival), and residencies at the Rocky Neck Art Colony. One of their board members is looking into developing artist live-work spaces on Cape Ann. Like all fledgling operations, there have been rough spots (and could New Arts Festival ticket prices be a bit more affordable?), but in a city of 30,000 like Gloucester, these efforts have meant a lot. And created the sense that cool art is happening there, just waiting to be discovered. One of the pleasant surprises is that the work Searts has supported has been varied and frequently challenging.

But back to Hunter. He is a balding man in wire-rim glasses, a dark suit and crooked tie, who gives a witty, rousing speech. Sitting in front of me was one of Gloucester’s great characters, musician Bonnie Barish, who chanted “Amen” to all he said.

Hunter cited an often-referenced 2000 report by the New England Council that said the “creative economy” represented 3.5 percent of the state’s workforce – a seemingly small percentage, but more than the software industry or biotech industry. “The arts are perceived as a luxury,” Hunter said. “And yet we’re an economy of innovation and ideas.”

His point, of course, is we need more public arts funding. Hunter became chief of MAASH in 2002, when then acting Governor Jane Swift (Republican) slashed arts funding by 62 percent. The state has since raised arts funding by 66 percent, he said, and last year established a cultural facilities fund to support the renovation and construction of museums, theaters, exhibition spaces, zoos, etc.

Hunter was most moving, though, when he noted that Massachusetts’ dedication to the arts is one of the ideals written into its constitution (see chapter V, section II). I wrote about this same thing last year:
Our state constitution says it’s the duty of government leaders to “cherish the interests of literature and the sciences . . . to encourage private societies and public institutions, rewards and immunities, for the promotion of agriculture, arts, sciences, commerce, trades, manufactures, and a natural history of the country.” Why? Because in 1780 John Adams and his forefather pals believed this fostered the wisdom, knowledge, and virtue citizens need “for the preservation of their rights and liberties.” In other words, promoting the arts promotes democracy.
For the past four decades, Hunter said, government has been portrayed as an “instrument of destruction and malfunction.” He argued for a return to the Commonwealth’s founders’ vision of government dedicated to the common good (that’s why they designated Massachusetts a commonwealth), of government as an agent to build and support community – with the arts as a key part of that.

“We aren’t going to be able to do it at the federal level,” Hunter said. “We need to do it at the state level.”

*This is just a quick recounting, so I’m not double-checking all Hunter’s facts and figures. But strictly speaking, arts and arts funding aren’t new public policy issues in this country. The NEA and NEH are descendants of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, like the FSA photos, WPA mural program and WPA easel painting program, which served as a farm league for Abstract Expressionism. And these programs faced the same objections the NEA and NEH face today.


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