Huffpost Arts
Robert L. Lynch Headshot

The Arts: Making a Difference at the DNC

Posted: Updated:
Print Article

The Convention Halls are creative chaos. The streets are jammed with animated participants holding placards, engaged in heated dialogue and performing all kinds of issue-based street theater. The scent of policy is in the air. And it's just the way I like it.

Here at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, the role of the arts is alive and well. What you see on TV is only part of what happens. Inside, actual policy is being discussed -- not just broad themes, not just ideas, but approaches that will actually have an impact on lives and on communities. I am here talking to these very political leaders about the value of the arts and arts education in American society, and I simply have to ask them to look out the window for them to get the point. My US Airways Magazine told the story clearly on my way in, ticking off dozens of cultural destinations awaiting convention delegates.

During our panel discussion in Charlotte on the future of arts and arts education in America, former Secretary of State Madeline Albright spoke about cultural diplomacy, a critical foreign policy tool. She also noted how the arts helped shape international political dialogue both formally through U.S.-sponsored jazz and dance and other art forms, and informally by every day actions. On a personal level, Secretary Albright -- famous for her collection of handcrafted brooches -- told the story of how she would wear them as subtle symbols of mood or maybe a hint at national policy intent. For example, she wore a serpent pin when meeting with Saddam Hussein. It also turns out that she is a pretty good drummer -- and goes by the nickname "Sticks."

The discussion also showcased how the arts have proven to be so far-reaching. Former Secretary of Education Richard Riley discussed the need for continued focus on national education policies that would steer local and state decision-makers to enhance and support expanded art and music education in the local curriculum. The only state-level cabinet member in the country dedicated to arts and culture, Secretary Linda Carlisle of North Carolina, highlighted how cultural tourism is a huge job creator. Business leader Jim Rogers, CEO for Duke Energy and Co-Chair of the Democratic Convention Host Committee talked about key public-private partnerships, using the example of the $82 million campaign he co-chaired to build the new cultural campus in uptown Charlotte. And the value to corporations themselves, of corporate investment and involvement in the arts was highlighted by Jay Everette, Senior VP of Wells Fargo. Politics, arts and sports came together with our two other panelists: Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, who played for 12 seasons with the Phoenix Suns; and Bernie Williams, NY Yankees centerfielder and four-time World Series Champion who talked about how his lifelong devotion to music has made him a better person and a better ball player.

The reason that we at Americans for the Arts, along with our great partners at the national level, The United States Conference of Mayors, the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) and The Recording Academy, along with local partner ASC, produce a discussion like this at both the Democratic Convention and last week at the Republican Convention is to make the case for better policy and support for the arts and arts education in America, and to meet the leaders who will make those decisions. The delegates in our audience and the leaders to whom we have been advocating all year listened and released the official platform of the Democratic National Committee, which included the following about the arts:

Democrats are proud of our support for arts funding and education. We are committed to continuing the policies and programs that have already done so much for our creative arts industry and economy. Investment in the arts strengthens our communities and contributes to our nation's rich cultural heritage. We will continue to support public funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, for the National Endowment for the Humanities, and for programs providing art and music education in primary and secondary schools. The entire nation prospers when we protect and promote the unique and original artistic and cultural contributions of the women and men who create and preserve our nation's heritage.

Is it worth it? According to our Arts and Economic Prosperity IV study, the collective budgets of the nonprofit arts organizations in America are about $61 billion. And 9 percent of that income is from public sources. The mayors and county and city leaders account for the largest portion of that investment. The lieutenant governors and governors are still appropriating significant dollars in every state, and the delegates and Congressional and White House leaders are making decisions that generate more than $1 billion annually of federal funds. And, as the business and political leaders here point out, that little bit of federal investment helps leverage all the rest.

Fifty years ago a few policy documents laid the groundwork for federal support of the arts and humanities, paving the way for all of today's existing state support. Some people wonder whether a policy platform matters, or a campaign promise, or whether a specific word appearing in a piece of legislation makes a difference. What was true 37 years ago when I started in this field is still true today as I sit in this Convention hall in Charlotte: I have learned that it all matters.