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Americans for the Arts

June 9, 1997 – Americans for the Arts Annual Congress, Minneapolis MN


Thank you for that kind introduction. I am delighted to be here for the Americans for the Arts Annual Convention, your first since the merger of the American Council for the Arts and the National Assembly of Local Arts Agencies. This occasion marks a fresh start for an organization which promises to be central to the success of the arts nationwide in the years ahead.

I feel a real kinship with Americans for the Arts — not only because I, too, am an American for the Arts — but because my initial foray into the national movement for the nonprofit arts, other than as an actress, began 20 years ago when I was a board member of the American Council for the Arts. I didn’t know why I was chosen for the board, and I didn’t know what I could bring to it. As a working actor, I had no understanding of the relationship of ACA to me and my work. All I knew was that my agent called and sometimes said I had a job offer. I did not follow the money trail from NEA or a foundation or corporation or philanthropist to the theatre to my agent to me and other actors.

Now, of course, the circle is complete. ACA and NALAA are Americans for the Arts together, and it is abundantly clear to me the relationship of the individual artist to Americans for the Arts, to the many arts service organizations representing various disciplines, to the private sector and to the National Endowment for the Arts. Now more than ever, the individual artist needs the Americans for the Arts to speak up for individual rights, to speak as national advocates for thousands of individual voices, like the naif I once was.

What does Americans for the Arts mean for the American artist? This merger reinforces the connections among individuals, arts organizations, government agencies at the local, state and federal levels, among advocates and allies. The interdependence we have with one another mirrors much of the work we have been doing these past four years at the National Endowment for the Arts. Connections underpin everything we do.

We began to acknowledge and strengthen our interdependence at Art 21 three years ago, our national conference on the arts, which emphasized some growing needs. We talked about the Artist and Society, about Arts and Technology, about Lifelong Learning in the Arts, and about New Ideas for Arts Funding. I look back at that event and wonder where we would be now had not the Congress turned its axe on us.

In seeking ways to increase the role of arts and culture in national policy, we reached out to other Federal agencies — Justice, HUD, Education, the Park Service, AmeriCorps — to find other venues where artists and arts organizations might participate in reclaiming and restoring community life.

In the wake of the devastating cut of 40 percent of our budget, but also with an eye toward making connections, we restructured the agency from 17 different discipline-based programs to four main funding categories and strengthened our traditional partnership with state arts agencies.

And in the past year, we launched the American Canvas, a series of community forums designed to examine connections, find solutions for building a sound arts funding infrastructure at the local level, and start a movement, I hope, that will rival the environmental movement in our care, preservation and nourishment of American culture.

That’s the broad sweep of nearly four years, but where do we go from here? Our first hurdle is to keep the National Endowment for the Arts alive and kicking. Anyone who has kept up with the debate on Capitol Hill will realize that there are some very serious folks eager to drive a stake in the heart of federal funding for the arts. Well, the NEA is not evil, and I know that Americans for the Arts and all of our allies will rally once again to save this agency. This debate is a rite of spring and summer that will continue until the nature and complexion of the Congress changes, as I believe it will. Idealism, a bi-partisan commitment, public service and the common good will prevail.

It is a tough fight, a nearly debilitating annual Sturm und Drang that threatens to suck the life out of all arts advocates, and there are those who are exhausted from these culture wars. While it’s once more into the breech, dear friends, let us not forget the positive side of our work, let us not forget the reason for our work, and that is, the connection between artist and audience.

Congress has prohibited the NEA from directly funding individual artists now — with the exception of Creative Writing fellowships and the nomination-only Heritage Fellowships and American Jazz Masters fellowships — but we still have the individual artists’ interests at heart, for they are the very foundation of the entire enterprise. Vilified, pilloried, misunderstood, and neglected, the individual artist has it tough these days.

I am thinking now of the young college choreographer I met on one of my trips who sadly conceded defeat because the grants to individuals from foundations and other sources had bumped her out of contention now that the NEA was cut. I think of the young writer who cannot find the time to concentrate and finish that novel. I think of the aspiring actor who cannot make it to the auditions because of her job schedule. I think of the painter discouraged by the costs of supplies and the lack of sales. Artists in America, by and large, cannot earn a living wage through their art; they supplement their true calling by working in an office or waiting tables or — like me — taking a day job. And they subsidize the entire non-profit arts with their dedication.

The nation tends to celebrate instead a tiny fraction of those working artists who’ve achieved commercial success and fortune, but for every Robert Rauschenberg there are hundreds of talents schlepping coffee. For every Toni Morrison, there are hundreds of talents writing jingles. For every Arnold Schwarzenegger — no, there’s only one Arnold.

My point is that the artist is becoming the forgotten person in the cultural debate. Once upon a time, this was not so. Once upon a time, Presidents hosted dinners for all of the Nobel Prize winners at the White House in celebration of our shared achievements in the arts and sciences. Once upon a time, we had faith in our artist and in our society’s role in nurturing creativity and talent. It’s written into the legislation founding the National Endowment for the Arts:

While no government can call a great artist into existence, it is necessary and appropriate for the Federal government to help create and sustain not only a climate encouraging freedom of thought, imagination, and inquiry, but also the material conditions facilitating the release of this creative talent.

That’s where we go from here. If Congress restrains the creation and sustenance of a climate where creative talent may flourish, it is our obligation to object. We want this country to be the best it can be. We want our country to be proud of its creative talent and achievement, to celebrate freedom of thought, imagination, and inquiry. For everyone that argues that our Constitution neglects to provide just cause for federal funding of the arts, I would argue that our Constitution has as its basic premise the common welfare of all, and primary among our freedoms is that which allows us to think freely, to dare and imagination all we can, and to express what’s on our minds, in our hearts, at the soul’s core.

Americans for the Arts comes to us all at a time when partnerships are paramount, when we begin to build a creative nation in new ways — ways that involve new partners: perhaps from the world of health that recognizes the role the arts play in healing or from correctional entities that recognize the role the arts play in crime prevention, or from commerce that recognizes the role the arts play in the economy and tourism, or from the commercial arts sector that needs to recognize that the non-profit arts are their wellspring of creativity.

Americans for the Arts will play a substantial role, too, in building a creative nation with arts in the life of each and every youngster, in each and every adult, too. Your goals are our goals, too, at the National Endowment for the Arts. And as part of the intricate fabric of connections which help put together the whole cloth of the arts in America, it is vital that we support and sustain each other.

I ask for your help when we launch our American Canvas report later this summer in creating some momentum for grassroots public support. I ask for your help as we plan our next round of Leadership Initiatives for the Millennium. We have opportunities on both occasions to increase and deepen public awareness of the non-profit arts.

American Canvas has six calls to action that we need everyone to consider. American Canvas calls on civic and community leaders to join together in recognizing America’s place among the great cultures of the world; it calls upon all artists and arts organizations — nonprofit and commercial — to share resources and broaden citizen exposure to the arts; it calls on educators, parents and artists to make the arts basic in all students’ curricula so that they may have the skills to thrive in the information age; it calls on business, civic, and arts leaders to collaborate on community development plans anchored by the arts; it calls on government — local, state and federal — to form partnerships within government and with the private sector that use the arts to enhance the quality of life; and it calls on government, the private sector and arts organizations to support and develop broad-reaching policy and services that ensure access to the arts. These calls are made in the name of communities large and small and are an ideal we embrace, as I know you do, too.

We will not soon return to those giddy, idealistic days when something like the National Endowment for the Arts could be imagined, let alone created by passionate Congressmen from both sides of the aisle. But what they fought for, what they, with the promise of a greater nation 32 years ago, put into effect, this noble vision of an Athenian nation on the soil of North America, can be realized with constant vigilance.

We here are stewards of that idealism. Our lifelong connection with the arts has changed us utterly. We believe in imagination, in the ascendancy of ideas, in the common good, and the value of art to our daily lives. We believe in the individual artist’s ability to transcend time, or rhetoric, to tell us things about ourselves we never thought to comprehend. We believe in an America, proud to tell its story in all of its diversity and vitality.

Collectively, we pass on this legacy to the next generation. I know that Americans for the Arts will stand firm in this resolve, and I welcome our future together.



Copyright 2019 by Jane Alexander. Used by permission. All rights reserved.