Martial Artist

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

When the state's Joint Legislative Budget Committee recently released a budget proposal that zeroed out future funding for the Arizona Commission on the Arts, the wailing commenced. Artists who count on ACA grant money began wringing their hands; arts organizations chairs whose seed money is supplemented by the ACA reached for smelling salts. Anyone with a stake in or an opinion about the future of the arts in Phoenix fed the hue and cry of "how dare they?" Everyone except the Commission's executive director, Shelley Cohn.

At least publicly, Cohn is unflappable. No matter how I goad her, she's gently optimistic about ACA's future, refusing to badmouth the morons who aim to help themselves to the $8 million earmarked for state arts funding. She might well have a cross word for legislators to whom she must prove, between now and June when the proposed budget is approved, the value of arts funding. But Cohn's calm is about more than media savvy. She is, according to a former colleague, "the unruffled strength that drives the arts here. She's the real reason that the ACA will somehow prevail."

New Times: What a world. You have to defend government funding for the arts.

Shelley Cohn: You know, I don't object to that, because I think we have a great story to tell. It's the threatening part of it that's disturbing to me.

NT: You mean because you have to actually prove the importance of art and of the Arts Commission.

Cohn: Well, having to prove ourselves is one thing, but it's bothersome that there are people who don't believe that the state should fund the arts. Because when you think about the relationship between the arts and tourism, which is in the same boat we are, those are big industries in the state that speak to the future of Arizona.

NT: Right. Because the proposed budget also zeroed out the Office of Tourism. Which is very lame.

Cohn: Well, I think it's a wake-up call for all of us; we need to be articulate and clear about the value of art to the citizens who live here, and about how it draws people and makes them want to stay.

NT: But how do you prove the value of art to a bunch of lunkheads – and in only four months?

Cohn: Well, the state's priorities are recovering our economy and education, and we have to communicate the way that the arts play a significant role in both of those agendas. If we want to have a state that will attract new businesses, we need to maintain a level of culture. Because employers want to make sure there's a quality of life here that's attractive to their employees before they move their business here.

NT: And more than half of your programs are educational.

Cohn: Right, and it's education in a broad sense, aimed not just at kids in schools, but at adult learning, like lectures after a performance that make sure people can get more deeply into the artistic experience.

NT: Almost no one realizes that the Commission supports these things. In fact, most people don't know what the Commission does.

Cohn: I know. What we do is make sure that artists and arts organizations connect to the public. We do artist-in-residence programs so that kids can be with artists and explore their own creativity; we provide training for teachers; we help introduce people to the museum, the opera, the theater company.

NT: In a city where many people think culture is found in yogurt.

Cohn: Well, now. I've been at the ACA for over 25 years and there's been a tremendous change here regarding arts appreciation. People move here with high expectations, and thankfully we now have more beautiful facilities – the new library, the new museum. But what a shame if we're made to lose the product that goes into them.

NT: Your challenge is greater with so many new legislators to educate.

Cohn: Thirty percent of them are new! That's a tremendous learning curve. There's a nervousness on their part, too, because they may not know what the art thing is, and people who are in the arts might not be politically active, and don't understand the process. So there's that whole "getting to know you" experience.

NT: Getting to know elected officials doesn't sound like much fun.

Cohn: There are different ways we communicate with them. Remember, they're overwhelmed with information. Our goal is to personalize the experience by having them come to events where they see firsthand what would be lost.

NT: You also stand to lose matching funds from the NEA.

Cohn: Yes, because the NEA requires that we have dollar-for-dollar matching funds from the state. That's about $665,000. I don't think the Legislature wants to lose that money. As it is, we stand to lose our annual operating budget of $2 million, and the $8 million Arts Endowment Fife Symington helped create in 1996. In the last special session, they took $1 million of that money, and the plan now is to take out the rest. We currently only use the interest income from that, and so there's a growing concern about the loss of those dollars.

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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