Advocacy for the arts encompasses an array of initiatives and strategies, not least of which is bringing representatives of government-those movers and shakers who decide policy and, in many cases, hold the public purse strings—into the ongoing conversation about the essential value of arts endeavors to a healthy society. In a pair of reports in this issue, we report on how leaders of two very different theatre companies have cultivated special bonds with their members of Congress, an Idaho Republican and a New York Democrat, and how the connections have bred results.
Stepping into Congresswoman Louise Slaughter’s Rochester, N.Y., office is akin to walking into a 3-D “Who’s Who” of the local and national arts community—the walls are quite literally covered in works of art. Ask the first woman to chair the influential House Committee on Rules to talk about artists in Western New York, and Rep. Slaughter launches into a litany of names that immediately communicates her pride in the creative community she represents.
“She is a truly beloved icon,” claims Mark Cuddy, artistic director of Rochester’s Geva Theatre Center. “We happen to be extraordinarily fortunate in Rochester, because she’s not only the nation’s advocate for the arts, but she’s our representative.”
Cuddy is referring to Slaughter’s role as co-chair of the Congressional Arts Caucus, a bipartisan organization for members of Congress who support the arts through federal initiatives, including pushing for increased support of the National Endowment for the Arts. And while she no longer heads the Committee on Rules, Slaughter remains its ranking member.
He continues, “She loves artists, and she really appreciates what artists do and how important they are to the fabric of any community. So it’s not just ‘this art form is important,’ or ‘we must have arts education.’ She really appreciates the daring and the risk of artists.”
Rep. Slaughter won her first bid for election in 1986, as the representative of Western New York, the 28th Congressional District. But her political career was preceded by her study of science (as an undergrad she studied microbiology and has a master’s degree in public health) and her love of the blues. “I was a blues singer—I sang in a band at the University of Kentucky and I loved every second of it. There’s nothing like having that music come up behind you, and to just join in with it is marvelous. That was one of the best experiences of my life.”
“Southerners are storytellers,” she continues, referring to her Kentucky upbringing. “That’s how we understood family history because we’d all sit around at night discussing things, and sometimes make up stories. And we all sang—it was just part of our lives. So I know how much it meant to me. Right now I can hear something with really great chords and live on it for a couple of days.”
That connection to artistic expression was evident to Cuddy, even from their very first interaction in the late 1990s. She had agreed to participate in a fundraising event—a celebrity play reading on Geva’s stage. “Her enthusiasm for being with us was infectious,” he recalls, “and with her Southern drawl, open persona and high energy, she was a natural on stage.” Like so many artists in Western New York, Cuddy became an instant fan of the congresswoman and her strong convictions. “She is unabashedly partisan—outspokenly so. And that’s been fun, because sometimes she gets theatrical with that. She’s not afraid to show her colors, and she gets passionate.”
“Passionate” is unequivocally the correct adjective for Slaughter’s response to any question about the arts. Equally versed in the intrinsic value of arts education and the economic impact of arts organizations, Slaughter speaks on the House floor, in committee hearings and on the annual Arts Advocacy Day about the crucial role of the arts. She refers with great sadness to the “dark time” during the NEA controversies of the 1990s; she knows the statistics that support the inclusion of the arts in public school education; she can quote examples of businesses which specifically hire artists because they understand the visual applications of mathematics; and she’s quick to point out the federal government’s enormous return on investment in nonprofit arts organizations.
Slaughter is eloquent on art’s deeper role in society, as well: At a hearing on appropriation of the NEA in 2010, she testified that “the arts and artists of America are a national treasure and we should revere them. They and they alone tell us who we were, who we are, and who we aspire to be.”
According to Cuddy, it’s this intimate understanding that infuses Geva’s relationship with Rep. Slaughter and her office. “She had us in her House Rules office a few years ago and she spoke very personally, very directly about loving to come to Geva, how important the artistic work was that we were doing.” Geva staff have developed a personal relationship with the congresswoman and her office, allowing die dieatre to look to her for assistance with issues as they occur—such as the complexities of obtaining artist visas and of arrangements with die theatre’s building, a historical landmark.
“Our issues in the arts are absolutely just as important to her and her team as anyone else’s business,” says Cuddy. “That’s a form of respect she shows us. And she’s our voice, she represents us. But it’s not as if we talk about big national issues for the arts in any formal way. It’s the perfect illustration of the old saying—’all politics is local.’ You have to form a personal relationship wirh the people who represent you.”
Cuddy asserts that Slaughter’s personal experiences with the arts in Rochester have given her a deeper appreciation of the issues faced by artists and arts organizations throughout the country. She takes great pride in the inclusion of $50 million for the NEA in the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which is an excellent proof of the claim.
“I think there’s sort of a mind-set that those people are always standing up there on stage waiting for the lights to go up,” Slaughter says, “that they don’t have to pay rent or feed their family or educate their children. And so the idea of putting money in the stimulus for them was a way of saying what they meant to us, and what they meant during the Second World War and afterwards as well, and during the Depression. We owe artists so much. And the least we can do is make sure they can have a good living wage, good health care. That’s what we tried to do with both the health care and the stimulus bills. We couldn’t do without them.”
Jenni Werner is the director of literary and artistic programs at Geva Theatre Center in Rochester, N.Y., and was previously Theatre Communications Group‘s director of programming.
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