Advocate: At All Levels—At All Times—For All People
A few weeks ago, while many of my colleagues from around the country gathered in San Francisco for the annual AFTACON, I found myself unpacking a few books and some clothes in my small, single room at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in New Haven, Kentucky—a Trappist monks’ monastery near Louisville—where I was on a silent retreat. While many of you were learning the latest and greatest about the transformative power of the arts, I was reflecting on a transition from my seven-year tenure as the leader of state arts advocacy for Maryland to my new role as executive director of one of Maryland’s 24 local arts agencies, the Kent County Arts Council. While you were networking and learning with more than 1,000 advocates from around the country, I sat in silence listening to the monks chant the Vigil, Matin, Sext, Nons, Vespers, and Compline. I was lucky enough to be there during the Summer Solstice; the below photo of the Abbey is about five minutes before sunset on the Solstice. The week of silent contemplation did my mind and soul a lot of good.
And there was art—a lot of it! There was an entire sculpture garden with bronzes by Walker Hancock. The two sculptures, Christ in Prayer in the Garden and Disciples Asleep in the Garden, were dedicated to a young seminarian named Jonathan Myrick Daniels, who was murdered in 1965 by a police deputy during a protest against a drug store in Alabama that wouldn’t allow Black patrons to sit at the counter.
Why do I tell you this? Because I think we must always remember—in the work that we do as arts advocates and arts administrators—our work represents countless individuals across the country, many of whom we may never meet. The most famous monk to live at this Abbey was Thomas Merton (one of Pope Francis’ “Great Americans” in his speech to Congress). Merton, in his book The Seven Storey Mountain, tells of the advice that his abbot once gave to him upon his entering the Abbey at the age of 27: “A lot of souls out there are counting on you, don’t screw up!”
Day in and day out, we work on behalf of so many that we may never meet. Whether a student in an art class or school chorus, a senior citizen in a quilting guild, a potter fashioning pieces for an Empty Bowls food pantry fundraiser, or a writer or composer bringing important subject matter to the page or the stage—they are relying on us to move the needle in public discourse about the power of the arts. Whether I testify at a budget hearing in the Maryland State House, or I speak before the Mayor and City Council of my town of 4,500 people, it is my job to make a passionate, concise, and strong case for public investment in the arts. (Americans for the Arts has lots of tools to make that job easier, especially the new Arts & Economic Prosperity 5 report!).
In the spirit of the monks at the Abbey, I move into the next phase of my career and my life with, I hope, a contemplative and non-dualistic view of the power of the arts. I don’t know the outcomes that may lie ahead, but I do know that as each new challenge comes forward, I want to take time to reflect on the pros, cons, and in-betweens. I want to think about the impact of my words and my work, on those directly and indirectly affected by my work, especially in times like these where the political divide and discourse seem so deep and sour. The arts move us forward. Why do you think we added the A to STEAM—a STEM just sits there, but STEAM moves us! The arts can be the great unifier, the one thing that rises above the fray to connect us. It is my hope in this next chapter that I can be a catalyst for the arts to engage my whole community in something bigger than ourselves.
John Schratwieser is the recipient of Americans for the Arts’ 2017 Alene Valkanas State Arts Advocacy Award. Since 2007, the award has honored an individual whose arts advocacy efforts have dramatically affected the political landscape at the state level.