By Karla Heinen
Last week, United Arts Council staff and one board member participated in ARTS Day, comprised of one conference day and one legislative day, organized annually by ARTS North Carolina. United Arts Council president, Eleanor Oakley, also served on the planning committee for ARTS Day. Arts supporters from all over the state gathered at Talley Student Union at N.C. State for the conference portion of the event. Then on the legislative day, we headed to Jones Street for individual meetings with legislators to express support for the Arts Education Bill (HB 138) and an increase in Grassroots Arts funding.
This was my first ARTS Day. If you haven’t been, I’ll share my top six takeaways. If you have been, I’ll help you relive the experience.
John Hood tap dances (and you can’t tell a person’s views on the arts based on his/her political leanings). In his keynote address at the conference portion of ARTS Day, Hood, president of the JW Pope Foundation and chair of the John Locke Foundation, was clear about his family and personal engagement with the arts and his generally conservative politics. He also made it clear that these two facts were not at odds with one another. I’m telling you, this guy gets the arts—the short version of the story is that his mom was an art teacher, and he used to teach tap dancing to preschoolers. He said that those of us attending the legislature the following day should realize that any legislator we visit also likely may have a personal connection to the arts regardless of his/her political affiliation. Hood had many memorable quotes including “a failure to resolve controversial issues is a failure of imagination” and “arts education and education are one in the same.” (YES!!)
Louise Toppin has an amazing voice (and the arts can be linked to the political process). In her follow-up keynote address, Toppin, Professor of Voice and Chair of the UNC Music Department, eloquently described and demonstrated the history of the arts’ relationship with protests in the United States. Given Hood’s remarks before hers about the ability of the arts to be separate from politics, it was all the more meaningful to think about times artists have chosen to engage in the political arena in an artful way. By choice, people have used the language of arts to protest throughout the course of our history, and that choice is a powerful one.
Know your strengths and don’t be afraid to ask for help (good life lesson in general). In a break-out session that first day, white paper fans were distributed. On them, we were charged with telling a story about the impact of the arts in our community. Throughout the room, attendees created beautiful fans relating the impressive work going on throughout every county in the state. I could have written a story on the fan, but I realize that is not visually appealing. Instead I brought the fan home and asked my first grader to decorate it. Bonus: her school is in the district of the representative I met with. Done and done. When I handed my legislator the fan, he attached it to his desk clock with a rubber band. And there, I predict, it will stay. It’s a lot harder to throw away artwork from a child. You know this if you are currently collecting a child’s artwork or if you have boxes of it in your attic from many years ago.
On Legislative Day, stay flexible; be ready to talk for two minutes or 30 minutes. I was paired with an artist (a recipient of one of the Regional Artist Project Grants), and we had a 9:30 a.m. meeting with a legislator. Then the meeting moved to 11:30 a.m. A few minutes before noon the legislator walked into his office with lunch in his hands to eat at his desk. During the 30 minutes we waited outside his office, several other people attempted to stop in and see him. He apologized several times for his lateness, explaining that committee meetings often come up with little notice. He just had time to eat lunch at his desk before his next committee meeting. We had now become his lunch meeting, but he didn’t seem to mind at all or rush us out so he could get to the free ice cream (keep reading for more details on ice cream).
If the legislator you meet with should happen to have an ax hanging on his wall (hypothetically speaking), avoid looking directly at it so you don’t find out why it is there. Or ask away, must be a good story.
Tell your story. Legislators are people. People are interested in the arts. Therefore, legislators are interested in arts. That’s logic, folks. There are multiple groups holding a lobby day on any given day at the legislature. On our day, another group was giving away ice cream on the outside patio area. But ARTS Day had the beautiful (and conveniently large and highly visible) Paperhand Puppets and fantastic musical performances from performers around the state. Ice cream only makes you feel good temporarily. The arts improve quality of life immeasurably. (Although there are many fantastic studies that quantify the impact of arts.)
We are still waiting to find out the immediate, tangible impact of ARTS Day 2016 (if the arts education bill will have its day and if Grassroots funding will be increased). However, there is no question ARTS Day succeeded in bringing together a vibrant and engaged North Carolina arts community and building relationships on Jones Street around a love we can all agree on: the arts.