Cutting the fat & feeling the pain

Posted by Leigh Patton, Apr 19, 2010 1 comment

When I was asked to blog about a green paper on the future of state arts agencies (SAAs), I wasn’t sure the topic would attract much discussion. Most of the people who will read this paper will be grantees, I thought, so what do they care about SAAs as long as they get their grants? And then I read the paper and I realized I had been short-sighted. If you aren’t one of the few SAA employees in our country, you may not feel this paper is of interest to you. But I urge you to reconsider, read it, and join the discussion.

Mr. Tzougros’ thoughts about SAAs reach far into our society and ask what SAAs can be to the ever-changing landscape of the arts in America. His vision of the future SAA “sets our work in a broader ecology, allowing us to make more meaningful connections to other creative industries and public policy issues, enriching our work on behalf of all citizens.” Heady stuff for a government agency which may or may not be appreciated by the majority of citizens anyway.

 Yesterday was Tax Day, and there were gatherings around the country of folks who feel government is too big. Today, our local newspaper ran a prominent story about the possibility of a pay-cut for state workers. The comments posted online in response to this story were shocking to me, a state worker. The vast majority of the 75 comments supported the idea of eliminating state jobs, “cutting the fat” out of state government, and letting state workers “feel the pain” of private-sector employees.

Regardless of where you stand on these issues, the fact that many people feel government spending of out of control is at the forefront of our collective consciousness. If these people were to succeed in “cutting the fat,” would the state arts agencies be among the departments eliminated?

And what if SAAs disappeared? Exactly what would be lost? Is government funding essential to the work of the arts? Would America’s arts infrastructure crumble? Who would pick up the slack? Are SAAs crucial to the life of the arts in America, or have we become settled into a sense of entitlement to public arts funding, in spite of its ups and downs? And what would happen to private funders in the wake of the elimination of public funding?

In his paper, Mr. Tzougros talks of writing a “new narrative for the state arts agency field that grounds us in our service to the citizens of our state while also embracing the expanded context for our work.” However, if SAAs become a casualty of the folks who wish to seriously downsize government spending, what happens to our society and the arts overall?

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1 responses for Cutting the fat & feeling the pain

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June 07, 2010 at 9:44 am

George Tzougros’ Green Paper is both relevant and encouraging. Leigh Patton ends her comments on Tzougros' paper with his statement, “The new narrative for the state arts agency field is one that grounds us in our service to the citizens of our state while also embracing the expanded context for our work.”

She follows with a question, "However, if SAAs become a casualty of the folks who wish to seriously downsize government spending, what happens to our society and the arts overall?" My answer to her question is that we who believe in the arts have the vision that supports that belief and therefore it is on our shoulders to continue to create and support our vision. We must fight for our vision as ardently, as passionately as the “others” who wish to destroy government involvement. As long as there is an income tax, our tax dollars must continue to be directed toward support of what we feel is great for our communities to thrive.

I applaud the work that the National Endowment for the Arts has done in passing on to SAA the responsibilities to support the arts in their respective communities. In Tzougros’ Green Paper, it is important to note his comment, “A long outdated hierarchy of art forms and organizations has guided the distribution of resources. This while the number of arts organizations has expanded exponentially and resources have not kept pace. We must imagine a new way. Words like “quality” are thrown around, not to discuss mastery of a particular art form but to put down one form in order to raise up another.” This acknowledgement in his quote, as an executive director, goes a long way toward beginning a process of redirecting past practices and perceptions.

As a female and American of African descent, my visual arts career benefited from the existence of the Wisconsin Arts Board and the numerous opportunities that they offered. I have been a full time professional artist for at least 25 years and during that time, I have received grants through my own efforts and a plethora of opportunities through other nonprofit WAB grantees involved in presenting community art workshops. Grants allowed me the time to create and present thought-provoking artwork for exhibitions, as I simultaneously developed artwork bought and collected by corporations. Grant access was not only personally beneficial, but allowed me to create a foundation to support my two children, both, presently involved in the creative economy. This access also allowed me opportunities to pass on my knowledge, regardless of class, race, ethnicity, sex or religious orientation, to a number of k – 12 students and mentor individual artists.

More recently, the creative community has had to embrace the business side of sustaining and presenting our aesthetics to the world. I have always perceived the Wisconsin Arts Board to stand for "service to the citizens of our state." SAAs do the work that must be done to preserve the community arts, which are not organized into unions. Additionally, the community arts do not like corporations have money to pay for public relations firms, lawyers and lobbyists. These professionals are a given in the business sector for gathering financial support and spreading the message.

Subsequently, there is still a need for state arts agencies as they continue to provide a much-valued service through, as Tzougros states, “the expanded context for our work.” There is much work to do and our collective community passion must get it done.

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