Rachel Madow was quoted on Richard Kessler’s blog on arts education (Dewey 21C):

“Sometimes we choose to serve our country in uniform, in war.  Sometimes in elected office.  And those are the ways of serving our country that I think we are trained to easily call heroic.  It’s also a service to your country, I think, to teach poetry in the prisons, to be an incredibly dedicated student of dance, to fight for funding music and arts education in the schools.  A country without an expectation of minimal artistic literacy, without a basic structure by which the artists among us can be awakened and given the choice of following their talents and a way to get to be great at what they do, is a country that is not actually as great as it could be.  And a country without the capacity to nurture artistic greatness is not being a great country.  It is a service to our country, and sometimes it is heroic service to our country, to fight for the United States of America to have the capacity to nurture artistic greatness.” — MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, speaking at Jacob’s Pillow

This blog is new to me, but I’m going to have read it more often. Without getting into a full-fledged, forehead-pounding, frothing at the mouth rant about the incomprehensible low level of arts support in the U.S., let me just say: Go, Rachel, Go! At least the Robber Barons back then established philanthropic trusts and endowed libraries and museums. I hope that I’m completely wrong, but I just don’t feel a great sense of noblesse oblige among the bankers who routinely receive unbelievable bonuses that are apparently completely unconnected to performance. It’s a such a puzzle that it is so easy to come up with a billion dollars a week to fight a pointless war, but pulling teeth here to fund the arts at any level. The benefits of arts education as part of any child’s education are well-documented, but apparently only arts teachers know about these results. The only benefit the general public seems to know much about are the need for bands at football games. I guess we have to be happy about that, at least.

But let me fantasize for a moment… what could be done with one week’s Iraq expenses… what could a billion dollars support? All the orchestras in the country for years? Full-time touring brass quintet, woodwind quintet, string quartet, and jazz band (with their own arrangers/composers & admin) in each of the fifty states plus Puerto Rico, Guam, and Samoa for a millenium? Free instruments and instruction for any child in America that wanted to learn, forever?

We’re talking about one week’s military expense from a war that shouldn’t have been… Just a dream, because the battle would be with American valuation of that arts. There are lots of minds who don’t see the need for the arts at all. Not everywhere, not all the time, but there are still too few folks who see the need and benefit of making the arts part of everyone’s life in some way.

When I lived in Switzerland, support for the local symphony/opera/theater/ballet was built into the city budget. People could vote it down, but they never did. They steadily increased the arts budget over time. Culture was not just pasted on; it was a real part of everyone’s life. People went to opera and symphony concerts not because there were famous names, but because they loved and appreciated the music. Little children could sing along with Pappageno and his pan flute. One thing in particular impressed me when I was there: the conservative upright Burghers of Lucerne took an outdated, obsolete prison on the outskirts of town and… remodelled it into a music facility with (many) practice rooms that rock bands rent out at minimal cost and practice 24/7 to their hearts content.

I read that the city of Vienna’s arts budget was larger than that of the National Endowment for the Arts – for 50 states, never mind cities.

I don’t think we’ll ever attain a European level of arts support. But we could do a lot better than we’re currently doing. In the Great Depression, government programs hired out of work writers to chronicle all kinds of things, artists to paint murals, sculptors to create works for public places (I don’t know if any filtered down to musicians). My mother directed plays, among other things, for the WPA. I don’t know why all the stimulus is going to millionaire bankers and auto makers and zero to the arts and arts education now. The arts is used to hanging on to existence for a pittance, so it wouldn’t take that much, and – beyond the joy, humanity, and other good things spread by the arts),  the ripple and multiplier effects would make this about the best spent stimulus money yet. The legacy of a civilization lies to a large extent in the arts it creates: think the sculpture and architecture of ancient Greece and Rome, the music of the Baroque, Classic, and Romantic eras. When you think of quality of life in America, say, for example you are looking at which of two or three cities to move to, one important measure is whether they have a vibrant arts scene. Do they have a symphony? Museums, libraries, parks, bike paths, concert halls? Do they have good schools? Do they have schools with no art, music, drama, or perhaps even sports, because of lack of funding or in trying to meet No Child Left Behind (another rant for another day – the poster child program for killing the arts and meaningful education)? I love where I live (Coralville, Iowa City) because there is strong civic interest in maintaining quality of life and support for the arts. One of the local high schools has a marching band as big as the University of Iowa’s, and the music area of the high school has terrific facilities. But there are lots of places in the state and every other state where this is not the case.

Some of it may be cultural. I grew up in Minnesota, which has always enjoyed strong arts support from both communities and corporations. The many soulless multinational corporations today don’t live anywhere and don’t feel much/any responsibility to give back to the community, when, in fact, it is in their own best interest to do so (another subject for another time). A small town in America could put itself on the map, greatly increase quality of life and civic pride (making the town much more attractive to both present and potential future residents), and perhaps even make a profit by staging, say, a brass quintet competition. Or woodwind quintet. Or string quintet. Or bluegrass band. Or all together or all (and/or more) in alternation. Include workshops, school presentations, family park/picnic concerts, as well as more formal evening concerts. I have performed at events like these in Juneau, Alaska, Shell Lake, Wisconsin, Ft. Hays, Kansas, Port Townsend, Washington, and Sarnen, Switzerland, among others. All small towns, and the events are wonderful for all concerned. Who ever heard of Narbonne, France, until they started staged a quadrenniel international brass quintet competition? Terrific bang/buck ratio, spreading art and joy, and making life special. Mayors, town councilors, take note.

All this is motivation to write letters and join others to encourage the support of the arts and arts education in any way we can, wherever we are.

But just for fun right now, what ways can you dream up to spend a week’s worth of war on the arts and arts education? Have fun, go wild, see what you can come up with. Dreams are seeds of possible futures.

P.S.: I just decided to Google this idea about a new WPA for the arts, and quickly found that someone beat me to it. Take a look at A New WPA for Artists. They spell out in terrific detail the vague sentiment I freeformed above. Where do I sign?

They also many links to similar projects. A small sample:

National Campaign to Hire Artists to Work in Schools and Communities. They also have a group in Facebook.

Americans for the Arts “The Arts and National Economic Recovery” recommendations

Music National Service/MusicianCorps

Art is Education

Keep Arts in Schools