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Michael Kaiser

Michael Kaiser

Posted: February 1, 2010 08:34 AM

Where Are the Arts Important?

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As I was preparing for my "Arts in Crisis" tour stops in a series of southern states, I was reflecting on the claims of too many politicians that the arts are the province of the elite in big coastal cities like New York and Los Angeles. This is used as an excuse for denigrating public support for the arts, and by extension, the arts themselves. The argument goes that investing in the arts only affects a very small, very rich, and very concentrated segment of our population.

While it is true that many of our largest arts organizations are in large Northeastern cities and that these arts groups have raised their ticket prices so high as to make them unaffordable for many, the arts play a vital role in virtually every community across the nation. It is not simply rich New Yorkers who care about music or dance or theater. People of all backgrounds and income levels are involved with the arts across the United States.

Why else would 400 enthusiastic people come to my presentation in Kalamazoo, Michigan and 750 attend in Kansas City, Missouri? In fact, I have already spoken with over 7,000 people on the 38 tour stops to date. I have met with passionate advocates for arts and arts education in Tulsa, Des Moines, and Wichita. These arts leaders were no different in knowledge, sophistication or creativity than their counterparts in New York, Chicago or San Francisco.

This thought struck home as I was preparing for my recent appearance in Meridian, Mississippi. I started thinking about examples of great art and artists from the region.

I remembered that my favorite singer of all time, Leontyne Price, came from Laurel, Mississippi less than an hour away from Meridian. What an immense loss to the world if Miss Price had not been allowed to experience the joy of singing as she grew up in Laurel. And my life would have been different if she had not given a recital in the Loew's movie theater in New Rochelle, New York when I was 16. Hearing her sing and meeting her after the concert changed my life.

And I remembered that Ethan Stiefel, one of the world's great ballet dancers, came from northern Wisconsin where his father was a prison warden. I know American ballet would be poorer if he had not been allowed to study dance. Ethan was a brilliant principal dancer at New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre and is now the Dean of the School of Dance at the North Carolina School of the Arts. Twyla Tharp came from Portland, Indiana and Terrence McNally was raised in Corpus Christi, Texas. The list goes on and on.

The arts affect every region of this nation. I am learning this on my tour. We ignore the power and potency of the arts if we assume that the only important work is happening in the big Northeast or West Coast cities. Without the availability of art and arts education throughout the country during the past centuries, our cultural heritage, a glory of our nation, would have been vastly diminished. Why is today any different?