Saturday, December 11, 2010

The State and the Arts

I spoke with Senator Roy McDonald at the Troy Farmers' Market today and discussed my concerns about the imminent closing of NYSTI and how it will affect Sage. Understandably, he explained the financial disaster that our state is now in and how he is in triage mode--helping to fund essential services like health, safety and education.

Of course, I take some exception to word "essential", but if I were to call the arts "essential to the human spirit" it would probably necessitate a collective eye-roll from my readership. Still, in my mind no two human services are alike or without their worth--comparing an art gallery to well-baby clinic is like comparing paintings to babies. I can't imagine a world without either.

The senator told me that these are hard times and that 900 state employees are being laid off. I replied that 15 of them work at NYSTI. He also gently explained that he doesn't understand artists and academics, but that he has to live in a real world with serious troubles. I am aware that is code for something, but as both an artist and academic, am probably not equipped to understand it. I have heard Rush Limbaugh say similar things on his radio show, as if artists and academics live in some alternate universe where rising gas prices, devastating taxes and the chaotic state of our government doesn't affect us. If only I could live in that rarefied world.

I guess I admire Senator's forthrightness, but would still like to live in a country where the arts mattered more to our government officials. FDR understood that providing employment to artists during the Great Depression was essential to the nation's spirit. Winston Churchill knew it was important to keep theatres open during the attacks on London in WWII. Both of these great leaders lived in scarier times than we do now. Even Lyndon Johnson observed that, "...the arts and humanities get the basement." Ask anyone at SUNY Albany in Theatre or Foreign Languages if that is true.

Speaking of London, I am about to take 20 students to study theatre there for two weeks. Their government-supported arts are affordable and of excellent quality, which makes the UK an essential destination spot and their arts an essential economic force. Can you imagine a London without the National Theatre or the Royal Shakespeare Company?

Maybe the NYSTI ship has sailed (though I hope not), but when this recession is over, we will still have hospitals, firemen, unions and a state government for all. I doubt that the arts will have fared as well. The cuts in funding by Mayor Jerry Jennings to Park Playhouse, Capital Repertory Theatre and other companies are appalling and will certainly cripple one of the organizations this year. Whether our leaders see it or not, artists pay bills, provide service, vote, live and die in this country. When a politician says that they support the little guy, they should know that includes artists.

To quote playwright Arthur Miller (eye-roll everyone), "Attention, attention must be paid."


  1. I wonder how many of our elected leaders have even seen a NYSTI production, let alone understand how NYSTI improves the education of tens of thousands of students every year.

  2. I have not seen a NYSTI production, but I have seen how NYSTI goes about funding these productions. Pedro Espada meet NYSTI.

  3. We are experiencing the logical conclusion of the crippling of the liberal arts that began in earnest in 1952 when corporations found they could get more bang for their development buck by funding applied sciences in academia. Money was sucked out of theoretical science and math, and liberal arts departments. First rate liberal arts teachers were replaced with second rate minds. If we are experiencing the logical conclusion of a long season of contempt for liberal arts, one can only hope this is its nadir and that there will be an opposed and equal reaction to the long ark of the "dumbing down of America".