It All Started With a Teacher
At times I have been asked, “How did you find your career path in the arts?” Actually, it’s more often phrased, “How’d you get in this business?” I have held a number of wonderful posts, both public and private, and am currently Director of Advocacy and Public Policy for ArtPride New Jersey, the state arts advocacy organization. My story is evolutionary, organic, and having tilled these fields for over 30 years, long. In this age of sound bites I’ll boil it down to this—“teachers and inspiring leaders.” For me and so many others, it all started with an art teacher.
The full story is circuitous, yet in retrospect entirely predictable. It began in the 60’s at a parochial school where art class was poster contests and “picture studies” of famous works for which we wrote reflective essays. Transformational moments came later at a large central Jersey high school in a progressive district that held the motto, “Excellence in academics, athletics and the arts.” They meant it and gave us the tools to achieve. Rich in fine art and craft, theater, instrumental and choral music taught by dedicated teachers, my moment came in Edith Henig’s Art 101 class. She demanded her students keep a sketchbook and monitored them daily. Mine was filled with psychedelic doodles that were far from traditional, yet on the back of each page were written comments like, “Keep going!” “This is great!” “Now fill up the page!” This was encouragement and affirmation for a painfully shy teenager swallowed up in a student body of over 2,500. Who would guess it would lead to an art major in high school, an art education degree from Moore College of Art and Design, and high school classrooms of my own 8 years later? And at every step of the way there were inspiring teachers.
There were inspiring leaders as well, the greatest of them being Governor Tom Kean, a true visionary. Governor Kean was dedicated to education and to his “Juhzee” arts, recognizing and championing the nonprofit arts organization as a way to nurture artistic excellence, bring pride to our state, and drive community and economic development. He proved that responsible government can treasure art and inspire its advancement as well as make it more accessible and central to the lives of New Jerseyans. He gave my time as Grants Coordinator at the NJ State Council on the Arts purpose, passion, and great optimism about the power and possibilities of our field. He also gave the impetus and the imperative to a fledgling group called ArtPride to become the voice of the arts community and bring both its challenges and solutions to the seats of public power at all jurisdictional levels.
After a stint fundraising at a regional theatre and the birth of my son, ArtPride went from part-time to full time and exactly at the right time when New Jersey’s arts community could spread its wings. New Jersey is the envy of many states with a dedicated revenue stream for the arts, cultural trust, arts education reform, statewide collaborative arts marketing, an exemplary professional theater community, arts in healthcare, and arts inclusion program. Still there is a strong feeling that the arts have stalled where other states are making strides in areas like cultural districting and innovative strategies for artists. It is frustrating to think of how much farther we might have advanced had state government in the last nine years actually appropriated for the arts what is required by the Hotel Motel Occupancy Fee.
So I’ll close with this thought, another sound bite—mentorship. There are many who have labored longer than I and many who have stood in the trenches when great strides were made and who know firsthand what it takes and what can be achieved. What if every one of us who played a part in getting this far got back in the dance and took another under his or her wing and fed the desire to make a difference with the power of encouragement and affirmation? What if every arts group made advocacy a priority, practiced it and taught it?
“Fill the page!” - Mrs. Henig would certainly be proud.