During a Congressional recess earlier this year, just before the famous “100 days”marker, I had the opportunity through a group called Together We Will Hampton Roads, to meet with Drew Lumpkin, Regional Director of Senator Mark Warner’s office, about the upcoming federal budget.
While details for the meeting were being discussed, I was asked if I could present a two to three minute emotional appeal for a portion of the budget I cared most about. I’m a professional in the performing arts, so it doesn’t take that many guesses to figure out which portion of the current president’s proposal I am most concerned about. I had already been trying to knock around my arguments for the arts in my head to write down – this just gave me a reason to finally put it on paper. Mr. Lumpkin was very receptive and helpful throughout the entire meeting, and my biggest take-away was that Senator Mark Warner does support the arts, and thinks the NEA is important. With the recent release of the president’s new “Taxpayers First* (*as long as they are rich, oh, and also they shouldn’t have to pay taxes either)” budget request, this letter seems to have again become relevant. The arts are not even MENTIONED in the new proposal.
It turns out the whole statement takes 7 minutes to read… and that’s if I do it really fast. (I had a little help with the stop-watch the night before from our editor.) So, in the meeting, I presented just the highlights in an attempt to keep it short. During those practice sessions while I was trying to get the highlights down to a reasonable length, however, Nic asked if I would be comfortable publishing it. So here it is, the emotional (and factual) appeal for arts funding. The following paragraphs were delivered to Senator Mark Warner’s regional office on April 19th 2017 (links added for this publication were not in the letter).
I moved to Hampton Roads, Virginia because a friend of a friend needed carpenters. Yes, unlike a good portion of the population of Norfolk, I moved here for this area’s arts scene. I was straight out of college, and I expected to take my job as a scenic carpenter at the Virginia Stage Company, spend 1-2 years in Virginia, build up my resume, and then go somewhere else, somewhere where they were making Art – but then I fell in love. It didn’t happen overnight. It actually took every day of the two years of being a scenic carpenter, and two different trips away to upstate New York for summer-stock, but I fell in love with the Hampton Roads area. That was 10 years ago. Mark Warner was the Governor when I moved here, and became my Senator just when I was deciding that I wanted to stay here long term.
A lot has changed since then. VSC promoted me to Assistant Technical Director in the middle of a recession. I kept going to other states in the summer (when there was no work here), and worked my way up to Technical Director at two separate theaters. The economy didn’t come back in the arts as quickly as we hoped. There were lots of pay cuts. In seven years there were four rounds of pay cuts or wage freezes. The company was restructured around the time I decided it was time to move on.
There are far fewer full time jobs in the arts in Hampton Roads than there were when I moved here in 2006. Most of the people I know work multiple part time jobs to get by. I currently have three: I’m the Artist Liaison for the Virginia Symphony Orchestra, a Production Assistant for the Virginia Arts Festival, and occasionally I work a gig or two backstage at the Sandler Center for the Performing Arts. I also write for the Arts and Entertainment section of the Virginian-Pilot to make a little extra money. I am a carpenter, and electrician, a lighting designer, a stage manager, a company manager, an event manager, and a hospitality manager, as well as a writer. I’m ultimately employable, and yet, I still rely on the ACA for my health insurance, because not one of these companies can afford to hire me full time or provide benefits. Over the last ten years I have worked with and for many of the Hampton Roads arts organizations. On top of that hustle to pay the bills, I find time to volunteer at the Little Theater of Norfolk, the Little Theater of Virginia Beach, writing for the AltDaily.com theater section, and occasionally I even answer phones for WHRO, our local NPR affiliate.
Of all the places I have worked, and companies I have worked along side with, the majority of them rely on funding that comes in some way shape or form from the National Endowment for the Arts. The NEA helps fund the Virginia Commission for the Arts. I have attached to this letter a short list of the companies my close friends and I have connected with in my time here which receive that funding [not attached to this article for privacy, but you can find a statewide list here.] NEA funding is also considered essentially a “seal of approval” for arts organizations. Nationally, every $1 put in by the NEA is matched by about $9 in private or other donations. In the state of Virginia, every $1 put forth by the Virginia Commission for the Arts is matched by $16 in other donations to those organizations. Without NEA funding, the companies that we are employed by will not be able to continue with their missions, and we will be among the unemployed.
In 2010, when the state of Virginia considered abolishing the Virginia Commission for the Arts, we wrote and called our state representatives, and we let them know that if they cut funding for the arts in Virginia, we would be forced to move out of state for jobs, and they would lose not only intelligent, engaged citizens, but also the tax dollars that come with our paychecks. If arts funding is cut nationally, the five million people employed by the arts and culture industry, including two million full time artists, will be in danger of being forced to go to other countries for work, or losing their livelihoods altogether.
We are some of your most fervent constituents when you support our interests. We are also some of the most vocal citizens, and we have the biggest audiences.
The NEA has a $148 million dollar appropriation. With that investment, America gets back a $742 billion dollar Arts and Culture industry — this encompasses 4.2% of GDP. All 435 congressional districts benefit from arts funding, but the biggest benefit culturally goes to rural areas, who don’t tend to have as many higher level donors, and might not be able to bring arts to their area without the NEA. The NEA revitalizes communities, and also supports military service members with their Creative Forces: NEA Military Healing Arts Network — one of their clinical sites is at the Joint Expeditionary Base on Little Creek in Norfolk. Most importantly, the NEA, according to their own website, “creates an environment for the arts to bloom and thrive.” They protect, support, and document all culture in the United States: Native American culture, African-American culture, our living heritage of regional folk cultures as well as what we refer to as “high art.”
They also provide project-specific grants to organizations around the country. In the time I have lived in Hampton Roads, I have seen the Virginia Arts Festival receive $35,000 to put on Bernstein’s Mass in 2010, the Virginia Stage Company receive a $40,000 grant that same year for the creation of the play The Comfort Team, which we premiered in 2012 (I was their Assistant Technical Director at the time — I worked on the set). The Virginia Symphony Orchestra was also recommended in 2016 for a $10,000 grant for their Harmony Project, which would bring their music to religious organizations with minority populations in this area.
The arts are also proven to help in education. Many studies conclude that the arts help students with other core subjects, like math and reading.
Arts programs have been cut back in our schools since I was a kid. Prior to attending college, my last art class had been in the 7th grade. My college preparatory school did not see it as an important part of an honor student’s curriculum. They required multiple science classes in a year, and expected that we would go on to work at NASA, or cure diseases. I stand here with you today, as my high school class valedictorian, with a passion for the arts that I had to discover on my own. A passion that I had to reach for, and that for the majority of my life, seemed just out of my grasp. I can only hope that my high school would be as proud of their unexpected arts major today as they were the day they sent me off to DC for a week with the Presidential Classroom program.
Art is our culture. Art is what separates humans from other species. Art is viscerally important to human survival. I’m not one of the “coastal elite.” I grew up in the Appalachian Mountains in Pennsylvania in a home that had a wood stove as our main source of heat. It doesn’t take any special type of person to be affected by art — we all have the need to express ourselves. Our founding fathers knew that for the health of a democracy, the citizens need to have the ability to put forth their ideas; so much so that freedom of speech is enshrined in the First Amendment of our constitution. What better use for our government than to support the citizens as they do just that?
Okay you guys, time to mobilize. Nothing happens without us saying it should, so if you want continued support for the arts in Virginia, call your employees. Find and contact your representative here, contact Senators Mark Warner here, and Tim Kaine here.