Saturday, April 30, 2011

Blogging from Tucson on the Arizona Statewide Town Hall

Good morning.
“And the beat goes on………………………….”

The Arizona Town Hall:

The crisis of funding for state arts agencies continues as legislatures work their way through their budget processes. While some states remain relatively unscathed with painful, but not draconian, cuts - many more have already seen yet another truly substantial blow to their budgets. Several, including Kansas, Washington and South Carolina are not yet free of the threat of elimination. Just this week I have gotten nearly a score of email alerts from Betty Plumb in South Carolina – a good friend and the savvy and experienced leader of one of the most active and dedicated of the state arts advocacy groups – urging her constituents to rally to the defense of the South Carolina state agency to beat back attempts by the Governor there to zero out the agency’s funding.

Arizona has already suffered huge cuts in the past three years, including the legislature’s zeroing out of the Arizona ArtShare Endowment - the state agency’s once proud $20 million dollar model flagship funding source.

As in many states across the country, Arizonans are assiduously trying to make the case for the value of the arts to Arizona’s economy, education and civic life and fighting the uphill battle to get the decision makers to understand the incalculable benefits the arts bring to the state. Every year, an independent nonprofit convenes a statewide Town Hall meeting in Arizona. This year’s will be the 98th such gathering, and this one focuses on Capitalizing on Arizona’s Arts & Culture assets. The arts have previously been a smaller thread of one or two other Town Halls, but this is the first time it has ever centered entirely on the arts. It comes at a propitious time: the State of Arizona Budget - enacted last week - includes a $0 state fund appropriation to the Arizona Commission on the Arts. In addition to the elimination of the state appropriation to the Arts Commission ($665,000), the budget includes a re-capture of roughly 8% of the income the Commission receives from the Arizona ArtsTrust Fund, which is comprised of Corporation Commission filing fees ($15 per application goes to ArtsTrust). This roughly equates to a loss of $115,000. (The ArtsTrust Fund is  not to be confused with the Arts Share Endowment referred to above, which was previously zeroed out).

Bob Booker, Executive Director of the Arizona Arts Commission invited me to attend the Town Hall as an observer and to blog daily on what happens there – the deliberations, the debates and the final outcomes. The purpose of my blogging is twofold: First, to try to capture some of the essence of the discussions and considerations germane to the obstacles and barriers to the provision of art to Arizona’s citizenry - as put forth to the panels - so that those in the wider arts community all across Arizona might have a virtual seat at the table and be able to follow the proceedings; and Second, to allow a national audience to share in the process of those deliberations - as to what Arizona is going through, what is important and relevant there, what challenges it faces, and what conclusions they reach – in the belief that what transpires there may very likely have relevancy and bearing on what is going on throughout the nation. There are other such discussions taking place in other states as well.

The Arizona annual Town Hall gathers leaders from across the state – and this one includes over 150 participants – not only from the arts, but from municipal government, academia, business, the media and including both artists and students . Alas, the participant list includes not a single state legislator or anyone from the Governor’s office. Still the Town Hall has a long and rich history in the state, and carries some cachet that, frankly, the arts community may not have on its own.

The three plus day event breaks down into five panels, all of which consider the same fundamental questions as to what the arts mean to Arizona, what they need, and how support might best be realized – in four half day sessions. Sessions will zero in on:

1. What is unique to the Arizona arts sector, and how the state capitalizes on its diversity, as well as the role of the private sector, government, stakeholders and individual communities in interacting with and nurturing the arts ecosystem and infrastructure.

2. Where the arts intersect with the economy, education, health and the quality of life - and the extent the public understands those intersections.

3. The funding paradigm for the arts and the roles of business, philanthropy, and government - and how funding is used and maximized to generate value.

Specific recommendations from each panel for each of the above areas will be arrived at by consensus after exhaustive discussion and debate. On the final day, the entire group reconvenes and reconciles the recommendations of the five panels and arrives at a final set of recommendations.

Each participant has been provided extensive background materials on all aspects of arts and culture from experts throughout the state – including comprehensive histories of funding, arts education, past legislative actions, Arizona’s place relative to the national situation, libraries, parks, multicultural constituencies, the humanities, rural communities and the relationship of arts &  culture to the economy, jobs, tourism, and civic life. Also included is the Arizona Commission on the Arts recently completed Strategic Plan, and the exhaustive process the commission engaged in the preparation of that plan.

NEA Chair Rocco Landesman, and Senior Director of Cultural Initiatives at the Pew Foundation, Marion Godfrey, will both address the assemblage in plenary sessions. I hope to be able to briefly interview both and solicit their thinking on the situation in Arizona as emblematic of states across the country and of their ideas, thoughts and opinions as to how every state can better position itself and better make the case to decision makers as to why an investment in the arts is essential to a core strategy to leverage creativity to its advantage over the next ten to fifty years. I want to find out what they think the role of the NEA and the foundation community might be in helping state arts fields to stem the current tide of what is really an anti-arts ‘roll back of funding’ mind set. If we want to remain globally competitive over the next fifty years, America desperately needs a national strategy to insure that it continues to be in the vanguard of fostering and nurturing creativity, ideas, and innovation, and it needs a comprehensive policy and strategic plan that will guide decision makers understanding of the role the arts play in that effort. We simply cannot any longer afford to let other nations gain a monopoly on thinking about creativity’s role in the future.

The business sector recognizes the value and importance of innovation to their health and well-being, including their bottom line. Yet the link between creativity and innovation is not yet so firmly established. Moreover, the link between the arts and creativity and thus innovation is one step further removed from accepted dogma. It can be argued that government decision makers, grappling with crippling deficits, similarly are not yet convinced of the link between the arts as an investment and the return on that investment to the state. This Town Hall and events like it across the country is, I think, an earnest attempt to codify the arguments that make the case for the value of arts and culture as far in excess of the investment, to demonstrate the myopia of a failure to make that investment in lost jobs, revenue, tourism, civic pride and the preparedness of the next generation for the global marketplace, and to make specific recommendations as to how states can best capitalize on their creative assets and not squander the assets that have taken a long time to build.

I hope over the course of the next three or four days – Monday through Wednesday and a follow up thereafter – to accurately report as much of the proceedings of Arizona’s Town Hall as I possibly can; to give those who might wish to follow along some sense of what is going on here on a daily review basis; and to share some observations and conclusions as I observe a stellar group of people who will be trying very hard to put all the various issues in context and make smart, well thought out suggestions for the benefit of Arizona’s future.

I welcome comments during the process and hope people not only in Arizona but across the country will take note of what is going on in Tucson this week. You can leave a comment by scrolling to the end of this or subsequent blogs and click on the ‘Comment’ line at the end.

The Arizona Town Hall blog series is brought to you by the Arizona Commission on the Arts and the Western States Arts Federation.

Have a great week.

Don’t Quit.