While the more innocent souls in the audience might like to think that the arts stand above and beyond petty politics, the hard truth is that arts administration embraces the full spectrum of decision making in styles ranging from democratic vote taking to rigid autocracy. Important judgments about casting, budgeting, donations and suppliers -- even such seemingly petty decisions as to who gets to sit at the general director's table during a fundraising dinner -- often hinge upon considerations of who owes who a favor.
Anne Murphy, the exceptionally well-spoken executive director of the American Arts Alliance. loves to tell the story of a wealthy society matron who once paid a visit to her local congressman in an attempt to engender support for her regional opera company. As long as the dowager kept describing how beautiful opera was and talked about how important the arts were to society, the congressman (a consummate politician) remained evasive and noncommittal.
Realizing that her arguments were being brushed aside, the old woman decided to change her tactics. Rising from her chair, she crossed to the opposite side of the room and said, "Congressman, I am now putting on my other hat. Opera means jobs and, as the head of your local Democratic committee, I'm here to tell you that if you don't deliver the support I'm requesting, I'll break your goddamn legs the next time you come up for re-election!"
If the congressman instantly grew more attentive to the old woman's demands it was because politicians are. by nature, reactive rather than creative people. And, if the legislator was shocked to hear a respectable society lady mouthing such indelicate threats, it was because most people in the arts are perceived as being political lightweights who are far too refined and genteel to indulge in the type of crude coercion which has become a standard practice in the business and political sectors. It is extremely important for legislators to be aware that their constituents are scandalized by the fact that the amount of money spent by our government on military bands each year is greater than the entire budget for the National Endowment for the Arts. It is imperative for members of Congress to understand that support of the arts means much more than lip service.
There are many ways in which a person can take political action on behalf of the arts. Individuals can make each and every politician more sensitive to the role the arts play in our society by demanding to know how these people will vote on arts-related issues. People can write letters on behalf of an arts organization or donate volunteer hours to assist that organization with its educational outreach programs. If the need arises, ordinary people can help organize a massive community effort aimed at tying up a congressman's phones (a tactic which can net surprisingly felicitous results).
Elected politicians must never be allowed to forget that our votes give them their votes, To that end, a political action committee has recently been formed which will help the arts maintain a more forceful lobbying position in the nation's capitol. We urge our readers to support the Alliance of Arts Advocates and help it grow stronger as it lobbies the incoming administration.
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This article originally appeared in the December 1988 issue of Opera Monthly magazine.