Let’s Talk

Like Ed Koch, I frequently ask the question, “How’re we doing?” Mine is not a personal question, not quite a global one, but more or less a national one. My yardstick is more moral than monetary. I tend to fall back on President Kennedy’s standard that, “This country cannot afford to be materially rich and spiritually poor.” That is why I recently reread something called The National Arts Index, produced by Americans for the Arts, where I learned that attendance at symphonies, museums and professional theaters is down, but international audiences have grown significantly. Philanthropic giving is up, while the art’s share of giving is down. That’s understandable given the needs of a society in recession. Yet oddly, more young people are graduating with a four-year arts degree than ever before. Perhaps that accounts for the 15 percent increase in the number of working artists from 1996 to 2010 (1.9 to 2.2 million). Corporate support of the arts is way down, yet participation in the arts is up. So what’s going on here?

TV’s Norman Lear once said that he’d be a fool to think that his “little situational comedy (All In the Family) could change things. But it created conversation.” Taking a cue from Lear, we at ArtsWestchester decided it was time to start a conversation. The idea was to take the pulse of our community, which, after all, is a microcosm of the country. We wanted to know why so many parents are taking their little girls for ballet lessons, but aren’t going to the ballet? There’s the young professional who tells us that he doesn’t participate, but he sure wants his kids to learn to play an instrument.

Fortunately, the New York State Council on the Arts and the Westchester Community Foundation were on the same page. And so, with their support, we have begun a series of conversations facilitated by Douglas Gould, a strategic communications consultant. Do the arts matter to people? And, if so, why?  Recently, I watched a group of cancer survivors forgetting their troubles molding clay. A group of seniors listened with me to a Baroque medley at the Music Conservatory. Latina women are sharpening their English by docenting at the Katonah Museum. Parkinson patients are dancing at the Rye Arts Center. You couldn’t hear a pin drop in a packed room at a string concert at the Pleasantville Middle School, while parents and grandparents “qvelled” (beamed proudly).

So, what’s going on? Clearly, as a community, we want the arts in our lives. We value it in our schools, in the way we care for our neighbors and as a life affirming and shared value. But who should pay for it? Those who use it? Or is it a shared value requiring a shared responsibility? We know the arts are good for the economy, with a $156 million impact in Westchester County. Nationally, U.S. exports of arts goods (e.g., movies, paintings, jewelry) increased from $56 to $64 billion between 2009 and 2010, up 12 percent. Former NEA Chair Dana Gioia tells us, “The role of culture…must go beyond economics. It is not focused on the price of things, but on their value.”

Please, join this conversation. Email Joanne Mongelli at JMongelli@ArtsWestchester.org for more information.

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