Last Wednesday, I took a couple of hours out of my work day to stop by a hearing at the Rhode Island State House on proposed cuts to the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts (RISCA). Rhode Island’s Republican Governor, Don Carcieri, proposed the elimination of RISCA’s discretionary grants budget, the provision requiring that a percentage of the state’s public buildings be devoted to art projects, and the state’s film tax credit. Rhode Island is facing quite the budget crisis, but these drastic cuts to its arts funding represent heavily disproportionate treatment – almost as if the arts were, gosh, singled out or something by a Republican governor in a highly partisan political climate. (Where have we heard that one before?)
Fortunately, the response in RI has been led by Lisa Carnevale of Rhode Island Citizens for the Arts, who has really done a stellar job marshaling limited resources to provide an effective counterattack. Though her task is made easier by virtue of RI being one of the bluest states in the nation, it’s also one of the states that has been hardest-hit by the recession, and still suffers from the third-highest unemployment in the country.
When I got to the State House a few minutes after the hearing had started, I found that I was too late to get in the door – an overflow crowd had begun to form and officials had set up a TV outside for us to watch the proceedings. Impressively, almost all of the 45-60 in the hallway stayed until the end of the show, over two hours later, sitting through two other agencies’ hearings in the meantime. This crew is serious about arts advocacy!
There were several things I witnessed or read that day that I found intriguing in light of our continuing search for messages and strategies that work:
- There had obviously been a lot of offline communications leading up to the big event. The budget clerk introducing the RISCA case had a big smile on her face the whole time as if acknowledging how ridiculous the whole situation was (I definitely got the sense that the Governor is not popular with the state legislature right now.) The leader of the committee, a Democrat, spoke in knowing terms about the onslaught of panels to come and the extended time they would take, at one point looking at his watch and declaring “well, it looks like we just found 15 more minutes for you.” In any case, it was clear that none of this was coming to the lawmakers as a surprise.
- I’m normally not the biggest fan of matching grant requirements, but I will tell you, the NEA’s State and Local Partnership Agreement specifying that federal funds can only match state appropriations, not supplement them, has proven a fantastically effective bludgeon in fighting against cutbacks in state funding. As Amber Johnson (see below) astutely pointed out, no state wants to be the one state that’s missing something every other state has, and the NEA’s rules, as much as they inflict more pain on states already facing tough times, make that threat credible.
- I really liked this piece of language that closed out the written testimony of Randy Rosenbaum, RISCA’s Executive Director (it was included in a packet handed out to several of the people watching in the hallway). He wrote, “Let me just close by saying how much we appreciate the help and support we receive from the General Assembly, and how much we hope that you and your constituents understand and appreciate what a bargain you have, how inexpensively this tiny agency can help contribute to our state’s economic recovery, educational excellence and extraordinary quality of life.” That’s an argument I don’t hear often enough. The arts are a bargain, particularly when compared to bloated social service and entitlement programs at the state level and defense at the federal level. I find myself continually amazed at how much artists and arts organizations are able to accomplish on largely minuscule budgets, and the state arts agencies that oversee that activity are no exception. Yet there are limits to how far frugality can be stretched before these operations become dangerously unsustainable and crippled beyond salvation.
- I would be remiss if I gave this recap without highlighting how Rhode Island native Amber Rose Johnson, winner of the recent Poetry Out Loud national poetry-reading competition for high school students, completely stole the show. Folks, if you want to grab the attention of the politicians in the room, getting a 16-year-old brimming over with confidence, poise, and stage presence to make your case for you is, umm, not a bad idea. Following a string of dry budget numbers and similar-sounding language of jobs and economic impact, Amber cast all of it aside by articulating the meaning of the arts in her life, and finished off with this hilarious sound bite (and I’ll be paraphrasing here): “In conclusion, the arts are awesome, and we need them so Rhode Island doesn’t fall apart,” followed by “I am ready to receive your questions!” You kind of had to be there, but trust me, it was amazing.
As other state agencies (including New York’s) get ready to make their cases this spring and summer, it would be a good idea to heed the lessons from Rhode Island. Let’s hope things work out the way they should.