Susan Schmelzer on Arts Policy: Scoring the House

U.S. Rep. Cleaver earns an A for the Arts.

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During this interminable campaign season, one longs to hear specific commitments on what candidates will do once elected. Congress works for us — that’s the way it’s supposed to be — but the job interview process falls down through raucous debates and vaudevillian-like rallies. With incumbents, at least we have voting records to tell us how well we’ve been represented. With challengers, nobody seems to campaign on a promise to undercut support for the arts, but many do just that.

Americans for the Arts (AFTA) publishes the “Congressional Report Card” in election years, assigning members of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate grades from A+ for “champion of the arts” to F for “those who are a threat to the arts.”

In 2012, grades were issued and all U.S. Representatives from this area received grades of F, except Lynn Jenkins (R-KS), who received a D+, and Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO), who received an A. In the Senate, both Pat Roberts (R-KS) and Claire McCaskill (D-MO) were assigned grades of F. (Jerry Moran and Roy Blunt had not served the whole grading period.) With this in mind, I set out to learn why lawmakers representing our bi-state metropolitan area would have such extreme records on the arts.

AFTA’s grades are based on criteria varying from the annual vote on funding of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), to belonging to the Senate or House Cultural Caucus, as well as signing “Dear Colleague” letters encouraging others to move legislation supportive of the arts and the humanities. Due to congressional deadlock, so little legislation had been acted on that in 2014 AFTA assigned no grades — rather they used thumbs-up or thumbs-down to reflect signs of support. The results were the same, except that Senator Blunt received a thumbs-up for signing two “Dear Colleague” letters.

The AFTA Report Card helps us understand who is really maximizing opportunities to represent Kansas City’s arts providers and patrons. Congressman Cleaver was the only lawmaker representing the metropolitan area who responded to my requests for interviews.

Congressman Cleaver’s downtown office was quietly bustling on a snowy February Monday as we sat down to discuss his record of supporting the arts. The first question was from him. “How can anybody not support the arts?” he queried. We agreed that the arts have nothing to do with traditional party lines, but that they have become victimized by Washington partisanship. Even in the contentious Missouri State House, votes on arts issues move forward and typically reflect bi-partisanship. Not so in Washington.

“Arts are so significant that to relegate them to third- or fourth-class concerns is an act that defies history,” Cleaver continued. “Each culture, nation or group is defined in history by what they produce artistically. Archaeologists dig in search of the art in order to understand a culture.” He noted that it’s no accident that tourists visit museums — they go to learn about where they are. “Why else do tourists keep visiting Easter Island, but to wrap their minds around the mysteries of those ancient, monolithic human figures?”

It seems Cleaver is a politician who perceives his responsibility of arts legislation first within the role of a cultural guardian. He expressed worry that this “slick spot in our politics, when good and decent people are placing ideology above everything else,” will leave a gap in our cultural heritage as a nation. Through nine administrations, NEA funding has vacillated, coming to a four-year halt in 2012 at approximately the same level that it was in 1978! This is the gap, or should I say “gulf,” that we are creating as a nation.

On this note of discouragement, I asked what good it does to write or call our representatives and senators in Washington, and his immediate response was ever so logical. He explained that, even though we compete with 1,500 registered lobbyists in the Capitol, by our inaction, we aid and abet those who would say “I didn’t know” as an excuse for failure to act. According to Cleaver this happens more than we can imagine.

He explained that debate on the funding of arts and humanities typically stops at the budget committee, which brings forward flat funding year after year on the basis that “we can’t afford it.” “At this point,” he said, “we can’t not afford it! No generation should go to its grave without saying something, and you do that through art.”

We talked of Sky Stations, Shuttlecocks, and grand works of architecture, which illustrate our unique personality as a city, and of school marching bands and orchestras, with which we grew up, but our children did not — sadly absent now from our cultural DNA.

When a candidate says he or she supports the arts, it’s a good idea to dig a bit. You might find little or no action behind that commitment — or, as in the case of Congressman Cleaver, you might discover a deeper level of commitment than you imagined.

About The Author: Susan Schmelzer

Susan Schmelzer

Susan Schmelzer is a community activist who has served in leadership roles on several boards, currently including the Executive Committee of Missourians Citizens for the Arts, which advocates for state arts funding. Her devotion to the arts began as a vocal music major, while her professional background spans careers in higher education and nonprofit consulting.

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