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ON THE SCENE: Adirondackers lobby for the arts in Washington, D.C.

July 27, 2017
By NAJ WIKOFF , Lake Placid News

North Country arts organizations have three great champions representing us in Washington, D.C.: senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand and Congresswoman Elise Stefanik. They took time out last week to meet with a delegation representing a diversity of local arts agencies.

While doing so, Stefanik provided a strong endorsement for the arts to Cynthia Herrle, House Speaker Paul Ryan's senior policy adviser.

Consider the context. Congress is an uproar over health care, Russian meddling in our elections, strengthening sanctions, how to respond to North Korea and fight terrorism in the Middle East while lobbyists and the media are pounding on their doors to gain access. During all this, Stefanik gave 40 minutes of her time to hear concerns about potential cuts to the arts, humanities, museums and public broadcasting. While important to arts activists, government support for the arts adds up to less than a half of 1 percent of the federal budget.

Article Photos

From left are Holly Wolff, Stephen Longmire (in back), David Kahn, Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, Naj Wikoff, Bill McColgan and James Lemons.
(Photo provided)

During our time with her, Stefanik spoke passionately about the arts, discussed ideas for expanding awareness to her colleagues on how important the arts are to rural areas like ours, and only lamented about her challenge of attending events up here sans entourage. She, along with the senators' arts policy advisers in separate meetings, promised to support full funding for the arts, asked to be kept abreast of upcoming events, and was impressed by how interconnected our arts agencies are with each other and the communities they serve.

"I thought this was a valuable opportunity to be able to speak directly to the folks on the Hill about the work we are doing every day and the fact it's so interconnected and vital in underserved communities," said Bill McColgan, president and CEO of Mountain Lake PBS. "We demonstrated that though we are small organizations, we are very cost-effective regarding the amount of money we can bring in to leverage federal funding. I was very encouraged by the support we got from Congresswoman Stefanik as well as the offices of senators Gillibrand and Schumer."

The meetings were an outcome of my attending the Mountain Lake PBS community forum with Stefanik held in early May. I pitched her immediately after the show for a meeting with a local arts delegation and arranging a time with Paul Ryan. I knew she has a strong voting record of supporting the arts, but the speaker did not; thus, the request. Noting the speaker was pretty busy, she agreed to see what she could arrange and passed me on to her staff to work out a date, which ended up being Tuesday, July 19 in Washington, D.C.

The community forum was just before President Donald Trump formally released his proposed budget, which included severely reducing or eliminating funding for the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Institute of Library and Museums Services. These cuts, if enacted, would have a devastating impact on a myriad of local arts agencies that depend directly or indirectly on federal support. As Speaker Ryan had endorsed similar cuts in the past, I felt it critical that he hears from the congresswoman and us why federal support matters so much to our region and other rural communities that face similar challenges of an aging society, lower than average household incomes, and declining school enrollments.

A few days later at the annual meeting of the Adirondack Nonprofit Network, Cali Brooks, director of the Adirondack Foundation, arranged a time for arts representatives to discuss an array of organizations that could best represent the region reflecting funding from all four federal agencies and a mix of sizes and programming offered.

Then it was a question of who would be available and underwriting the cost of travel for the smaller arts organizations and those with especially tight budgets. Fortunately, a grant from the Adirondack Foundation, augmented by support from Americans for the Arts, met those expenses. The delegation consisted of David Kahn, executive director of the Adirondack Experience museum in Blue Mountain Lake; James Lemons, executive director of the Lake Placid Center for the Arts; Stephen Longmire, president of the Upper Jay Arts Council (aka Recovery Lounge); Bill McColgan, of Mountain Lake PBS; and Holly Wolff, president of Pendragon Theatre and a board member of Adirondack Foundation. As president of the board, I represented Creative Healing Connections.

We had three good meetings in D.C. with Eric Deeble, Gillibrand's arts person; Christina Henderson, Schumer's arts person; Stefanik; and Cynthia Herrle, Ryan's senior policy advisor. The timing was excellent as Congress is in the midst of determining the budget. They all expressed appreciation for our coming and illustrating through our stories how federal support makes a difference in people's lives, in our case, through the arts.

They were impressed by the variety of smaller agencies that provide a wealth of arts experiences and how we personalized the arts. As an example, a full concert at the Lake Placid Center for the Arts represents 12 percent of the population of Lake Placid. We described how the arts connect with young people. Examples included Pendragon taking theater into schools, Adirondack Experience engaging more than 12,000 schoolchildren annually, The Strand's wide array of arts education classes for people of all ages, the Lake Placid/Wilmington Connecting Youth and Communities Coalition's involving more than 100 kids in the creation of a mural for Whiteface Ski Center, and Mountain Lake PBS being a preschool provider for many low-income families.

We described connecting people through the arts such as Adirondack Center for Writing's writing workshops in prisons and storytelling-slams in bars; Creative Healing Connections' using the arts to help women veterans living with PTSD and MST tell their stories; and the Recovery Lounge casting its plays by recruiting people from all walks of life, many of whom had never acted before. We shared the array of innovative uses of the arts that got their start here, such as the creative arts therapies in Saranac Lake; films premiered by the Adirondack Film Society; how dancers Martha Graham and Paul Taylor re-invigorated their careers via summer residencies in Lake Placid; and that the first arts Olympiad at a Winter Olympics took place in Lake Placid in 1980.

We talked about a $2.5 million economic impact, from the Hyde Collection's exhibit on Georgia O'Keefe to the thousands of people attracted to the region by Fort Ticonderoga, the Wild Center and Adirondack Experience, and how these three are lead employers in their communities. We discussed how the arts have been key to the revitalization of Saranac Lake as the Strand is for Plattsburgh, and The View serving as a multi-faced anchor, education and exhibition venue for the Old Forge area.

"I felt that Congresswoman Stefanik's reaching out to Speaker Ryan demonstrates the deep level of commitment she has for the arts and culture of our communities," said Lemons.

"I was heartened to hear Congresswoman Stefanik's support of the arts and was pleased to have the opportunity to tell the story of the Upper Jay Art Center, a small but essential organization in our community," said Longmire. "It's nice to know she knows what matters to us."

"This was my first meeting with the congresswoman, and I was thrilled to hear her concerns for the arts and how she is interacting with her colleagues to present our perspective," said Kahn. "I was very pleased to learn that she and the senators are going to support full funding for the NEA, NEH, IMLS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting."



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