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.
On a rainy Monday in 2010, National Endowment for the Arts chairman Rocco Landesman went on an early Art Works tour. His guide for the few-hours’ drive from Jerome, Idaho, to Boise was Mike Simpson, U.S. representative from that state’s second district.
Simpson grew up in Blackfoot, a town of fewer than 12,000 in eastern Idaho. He personally wanted to show Landesman how important arts programs are in rural areas at a time when Landesman was deciding how the NEA would continue to support state arts agencies.
After a fast, furious 50-minute adaptation of Othello performed at Jerome High School by the Idaho Shakespeare Festival’s Shakespearience, an educational program that receives funds from the NEA, Simpson’s point had been made.
“I still remember that trip to Jerome with Congressman Simpson,” says Landesman. “The performance was a delight—solid actors, delighted students in the audience, and both were engaged with each other. I’d never seen anything like that. When I need to make the case for the arts, being able to speak firsthand about what I saw is key.”
The experience changed Landesman’s ideas about the importance of NEA funding for state arts agencies, he says. It also forged a connection that continues today between Landesman and Simpson, a Republican, who chairs die House Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee.
Getting these two into that van for this mind-changing trip was key to Idaho’s arts advocacy. No one knows that better than Idaho Shakespeare Festival managing director Mark Hofflund, who helped arrange the trip through Simpson’s office.
“It’s all about building relationships,” Hofflund says. “The more time Rocco and Mike could spend in that van together, the better their relationship would be when they got to Boise.”
Personal relationships don’t directly affect NEA funding, but they do build goodwill that can have a lasting impact. Relationships were built all around that day, as leaders from nearly every arts organization in the greater Boise area—including Trey McIntyre Project, Boise Philharmonic and Music Theatre of Idaho—met with Landesman to get acquainted and brief him about their work.
“On the broader issue of building support for the arts—especially if you are talking about members of Congress, governors, and mayors—you cannot overestimate the importance of personal and repeated contact,” Landesman affirms.
For Hofflund, who also serves as chairman of the Idaho Commission on the Arts alongside executive director Michael Faison, keeping Boise’s creative ecosystem in balance is as important as nurturing his own organization. The health of one depends on the health of all: “The longer you’re involved in advocacy, the more you realize it’s not about you, your organization or even your industry,” he says. “Advocating far the arts is about your community, your state, your region and ultimately your country. It’s really about public service.”
Hofflund learned his way around the public sector when he and ISF producing artistic director Charles Fee ran a capital campaign to build their amphitheatre park on a mix of public and foundation lands in the mid-’90s. Soon after, Hofflund began his ICA service at the request of then governor Dirk Kempthorne. Starting in 2005, he served on the National Council on the Arts for three years.
Through experience, Hofflund has become a strong advocate for rural states such as Idaho, where the arts are a growing presence in the state’s economy. This broader perspective makes Hofflund an effective spokesman, Simpson says.
“Being an arts advocate is more than just being an admirer,” says Simpson. “It means you take your passion and share it with the world. Mark has done just that. While his passion is the Shakespeare Festival, he is equally enthusiastic about all forms of art and works tirelessly to bring the best to Idaho to enrich our communities.”
Through the ICA, Hofflund helped organize visits by former NEA chairman Dana Gioia with then ICA director Dan Harpole, who died in 2006. As Gioia put a stronger focus on nurturing arts in all 50 states, a new opportunity came to connect with Idaho’s Congressional delegation—this new rural emphasis was something they could get behind.
Hofflund and a cadre of Idaho arts leaders worked together diligently as former senators Larry Craig (R-Ida.) and Robert Byrd (D-Va.) composed Senate legislation that would, for the first time since the mid-1990s, spur increases in the NEA’s and the National Endowment for the Humanities‘s budgets for 2006.
Simpson’s current position as chair of the House Interior Appropriations subcommittee makes him an obvious connection for any arts advocate. But Hofflund’s and Simpson’s relationship goes back well before that They met in 2001 when Hofflund was the new ICA chairman and Simpson was rising in the ranks of the House. Rep. Simpson and Hofflund connected immediately on issues such as access to the arts in rural communities—something ISF has provided for more than 30 years—and on pure appreciation for art. Simpson himself is an accomplished watercolorist and understands the benefits of the arts in his own life and the life of his community.
Hofflund and Simpson’s professional friendship has grown through two presidential administrations, three Idaho governors, and two heads of the Idaho Commission and the NEA, finding ways to connect and support the arts in Idaho and nationally.
“That’s really where Idaho is strong, nationally,” Hofflund says. “With the support of Mike and others, we’ve been able to champion the underserved, people who don’t normally get access to the great pockets of American cultural wealth. Whether they’re folk and traditional artists or students in rural schools, this becomes bipartisan when you realize it involves every state and every district.”
Arts advocates such as Hoffund are in it for the long haul. Budgets ebb and flow, and elected officials’ priorities must shift. But it’s important to keep the arts, humanities and culture in the forefront in subtle and obvious ways, Hofflund says. Visits with elected officials and their staffs, conversations about their own interests and sharing positive events in their state all make a difference in the long run, he pointed out.
“There isn’t a person in this country, no matter who they are, who doesn’t have some connection to the arts,” Hofflund says. “All you have to do is find it.”
Dana Oland, a former professional dancer and member of Actors’ Equity, covers visual and performing arts for the Idaho Statesman.