Overseen by General George Washington, a small army of arts advocates for funding has gathered at the State House this May 17, to march the marble halls seeking an ever-so-slightly-larger sliver of the state budget pie.
Washington, in the form of his famous Gilbert Stuart portrait, hangs as always on the west wall of the elegant State Reception Room. The 50 or so troops below him, representing community theaters, choruses, state arts and humanities councils and others, have been summoned to the budget battle by Rhode Island Citizens for the Arts, for a day of arts lobbying.
Revving up the crowd is Daniel R. Hunter, borrowed from the Massachusetts Advocates for the Arts, Sciences and Humanities. Combing evangelism and stand-up comedy, he briefs the group on the science (or is an art?) of lobbying etiquette: address officials by title, “Senator” or “Representative,” unless invited to do otherwise.
Art is no “frill,” says Hunter. Art is a multi-million dollar industry. Art employs workers. Art makes money. Artists’ galleries, museums, and coffeehouses bring dying downtowns back to life by luring crowds that attract other businesses.
Art is the engine of the economy, Hunter maintains, unleashing, even in young elementary and high school students, “creative thinking” that’s indispensable to free enterprise and business invention.
But beware of questions always asked about the arts in troubled budget times, he warns. The challenge goes like this: “How can we fund the arts when we cannot fund domestic violence and shelters for the homeless?”
Rhode Island, in fact, is wrestling with a troubled budget, and the debate is not whether to cut programs for the poor, but by how much.
And today, as luck has it, the homeless and their advocates are themselves marching on the State House, even as the artists continue their “Advocacy Day.”
Demonstrators lay symbolic sheets on the corridor floor outside Governor Donald L. Carcieri’s office and bed down. Speakers say 20 homeless women are sleeping on the floors of Crossroads, the anti-homeless agency, because enough regular shelter beds weren’t left when the Carcieri administration closed a major shelter, in March, to make way for a new state police headquarters.
One woman can barely speak through her tears, describing how she must pick her way through the tangle of sleeping bodies at Crossroads just to go to the bathroom.
So back to Hunter’s question: how can the arts advocates seek another $400,000 for the Rhode Island State Council for the Arts, on top of the $2.8 million it gets now, for more poetry, dancing, painting and storytelling, when grown women don’t even have a place to sleep?
Hunter answered his question during his earlier pep talk.
“There isn’t anyone in the arts community who doesn’t want to fund the homeless,” he says, explaining how the fault is not with competing causes, but with the question.
Hunter says: “You never hear: ‘How can you fund economic development, when you can’t fund the homeless?’ ”
Art, Dan Hunter says, is not a frill.
: This Just In
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