Thursday, April 26, 2012

Art as (p)art of your life!

We are all arts consumers.

Whether we realize it or not, our lives are enriched by art every day. And most of us rely on art to keep us going through the tough times. That beautiful song that provides inspiration? The book you turn to when feeling blue? The classic movie that always lifts your spirits, or, conversely, gives you an excuse to cry your eyes out? Yes, many of these experiences come to you via the vast American Entertainment Complex, but don't be fooled. They could not have been packaged and marketed to you unless someone in the beginning had an original vision. And the training to nurture that vision into something tangible.  Sometimes, when the final product reaches us, it has watered down so much of the original creative spark that we have to look hard to find it. But other times, even in a wildly popular sit-coms like Modern Family, my favorite TV drama The Good Wife, or the music of Adele, the unmistakable whiff of art lingers.

But the pipeline that brings us popular works of art isn't an option for the vast majority of artists. How long can we keep growing artists in a country that persistently under-funds them?  According to a 2010 study from the National Assembly of State Arts agencies: "Legislative appropriations to all state arts agencies currently total $297 million, or $0.96 per capita. This represents only 0.042%—less than one tenth of one percent—of state general fund expenditures. Yet the return on this investment is tremendous. State arts agencies support about 18,000 organizations, schools and artists, making the economic, educational, civic and cultural benefits of the arts available to 5,100 communities across the United States." Think what we could do if we spent $1 per person on arts in this country!

But there is an upside: if the government and politicians are not generous to the arts, individual patrons are! Because the U.S. has always had a tradition of philanthropy (we can thank Andrew Carnegie for our unsurpassed public library system), we have a culture of arts support from private citizens. That support was stretched to the limit by the recent recession, but there are signs it is recovering.

In my own case, I have been the happy beneficiary of individual largesse. After a little over 2 years of fundraising and grant-writing (during a terrible economy), my play Becoming Calvin has gained enough financial support to have its premiere in September 2012! I am busily jumping through hoops as I fill out contracts for the actors and performance space and try to find more members to join my creative team. Lots to do but very exciting! And done mostly through individual contributions: 78% of the money I have raised so far has come from many people writing small checks. I cannot imagine a greater testimony to the generosity of individuals and their recognition of the crucial role art plays in their lives!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Alec, Maureen and arts . . . oh my!

Lots of news happening this week! So in case you missed it, Arts Advocacy Day was this past Tuesday. Artists, arts administrators, and arts supporters gathered in Washington and stormed Capitol Hill to advocate for more money for the arts. One of the highlights of this advocacy push is always the Nancy Hanks Lecture. This year it was delivered by Alec Baldwin, who has been a tremendous supporter of arts over the years. He was introduced by the incomparable Maureen Dowd, who writes speeches that are every bit as clever as her columns for the New York Times, but are improved by her spectacular comic timing. She delivers a funny line with the kind of ease that leads lesser talents to think they can do it too. The kind that I am certain took lots of practice!

Actor and advocate Hill Harper (who has his own foundation to empower underserved youth) spoke earlier in the evening. I wish I could find a copy of his short but perfect advocacy speech to share with clients and students. He followed the Marshall Ganz formula of "Story of Self, Story of Us, Story of Now" to a T. A clear demonstration of why that model is the best for such speeches!

As I listened to the lecture in a full house at the Kennedy Center's Concert Hall, I felt tremendously empowered surrounded by people for whom art is not a "frill" but a way of life. I don't get to experience that very often. President Kennedy looked forward "to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft." But we're not there yet! I get so tired of being told the arts do not deserve "a handout" or "if they can't pay for themselves they have no place in our society," or -- my favorite -- "I believe in arts education for kids. But by high school they need to stop playing around and grow up." If I had a dollar for every time I heard such a comment, I could self-fund the upcoming production of my play Becoming Calvin.

The arts business is good for business, which Mayor Bloomberg is sure to tell anyone who will listen. But it's not just New York that profits from a booming arts economy. All communities benefit, in tangible ways. You probably know that art is good, and may already be a supporter. But if you want to counter the ignorance of nay-sayers like the ones I quoted above, you can arm yourself with facts from Americans for the Arts: 10 Reasons to Support the Arts.

Art: good. . . and good for you!

Friday, April 13, 2012

Lost in a good book

Here's a question: how do you become a better communicator, learn to pick up on non-verbal cues more effectively and take a low-cost vacation? Pick up a work of fiction!

Earlier this year I indulged in a flurry of novel reading activity. I found myself zipping through imaginative worlds that closely mirror my own reality. Chad Harbachs The Art of Fielding, and Helen Schulmans's This Beautiful Life described lives lived in places and situations that were not too much of a stretch for me. Conquistodora by Esmerelda Santiago and Suzanne Collin's ubiquitous The Hunger Games set me down in places I can only imagine and led me on adventures I will certainly never have. But as I mentally traveled back in time to 19th century Puerto Rico and forward to the dystopic Panem, I experienced foreign worlds conjured by authors who literally took me with them.

You may call it escapism, but it's more than that. Science now tells us that when we spend hours in a world far, far away, we are actually doing something very valuable; sharpening our empathy skills. In "Your Brain on Fiction" in the New York Times last month, Anna Murphy Paul describes research suggesting novel readers benefit from this activity more than we know. Findings by Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada, point to "substantial overlap in the brain networks used to understand stories and the networks used to navigate interactions with other individuals — in particular, interactions in which we’re trying to figure out the thoughts and feelings of others."

So I ache for Henry Skrimshander as he loses his gift for fielding and turns his back on baseball, his one true love. I get frustrated with Liz Bergamot and want to scream at her to stop being such a passive bystander in her own life. It is almost as if I were experiencing their pain myself, rather than observing it. And it is this experience, vicarious though it may be, that makes me a better communications coach, teacher, artist, wife and mother. I live in a very self-contained corner of the world, but by walking in a fictional character's shoes, I can go anywhere, be anyone. Which helps me develop greater empathy.

Keith Oatley, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto summed it up: “Fiction is a particularly useful simulation because negotiating the social world effectively is extremely tricky, requiring us to weigh up myriad interacting instances of cause and effect. . . . novels, stories and dramas can help us understand the complexities of social life.”

So next time you want to unplug, close the door and indulge in a good novel - go ahead: you'll be a better person for it!