Martial Artist

It's Shelley Cohn's job to persuade lawmaking lunkheads not to gut the state arts budget

NT: I'm sorry, but why are they entitled to that money? Why can they just swoop in and take it?

Cohn: That's a good question. I don't know the answer. I do know that they're looking everywhere, and if they see a spare dollar, they want to grab it for the general fund.

NT: Governor Napolitano has announced her support for the Commission, for educational and economic reasons. Will this help save you?

Cohn: She recommended maintaining our level of funding for next year, and that's enormously helpful. But there's still a series of negotiations that will go until the end of the session, which I expect to be in June. We have to proceed like a marathon, not like a sprint.

NT: Phoenix already seems so pathetic in so many ways. Isn't this just more hayseed thinking?

Cohn: We've made a lot of progress in being perceived as something other than a cultural wasteland. It's just not true anymore. But if you withdraw the financial and moral support, it sends a message that the state doesn't value this creative part of our society. I think that's the thing that people are reacting to as much as the potential loss of dollars.

NT: Is it the job of government to fund the arts?

Cohn: Government is a small but significant partner, and I think that certainly fits with the American way: that seed dollars from government stimulate and attract other dollars. It's a stamp of approval, a symbol that the arts are important and worthy of investment from other sources as well as government.

NT: And yet the voice of government, in this town at least, often says otherwise. House Appropriations Chair Russell Pearce keeps talking about how police officers are more important than the arts. He sounds like a real tightfisted asshole.

Cohn: But that dichotomy is a false dichotomy. Certainly police protection is important. At the same time, a small investment in providing arts opportunities for kids after school is also a valuable investment that prevents some of the antisocial behavior that we want to lock up.

NT: A few days after your proposed budget cuts were announced, Parks and Rec was handed $73.5 million. So the message is clear: Having a place to play soccer is more important than supporting the arts. Welcome to Podunk!

Cohn: Well, you know, that attitude means that we need to be creative about making sure that the state maintains a level of commitment to the arts. It's a marathon, like I said. But we've made progress with certain people and have convinced them that the arts commission should continue. Now the challenge is the level at which funding should continue. It's not a lot of money, but it has a tremendous impact.

NT: You're awfully diplomatic, so let me say it: What the hell is wrong with these people who want to cut arts funding?

Cohn: Well, you know. They were elected.

NT: Touché.

Cohn: This whole thing has been a wake-up call to the arts community. It's a chance to see what some of the elected officials stand for. I take the long view, and I think we've made great progress regarding the arts. We have a governor who wants to do the right thing, and I always believe there's common ground, that people who are involved in the arts have a way of communicating the importance of arts funding. Their message is what will make the difference. I know it sounds naive, but I believe that.

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