Setting The Arts Apart

Local, state and national leaders share their views on the coming arts season

By Richard Schultz, October 2016 Issue.

As part of its annual arts season preview, Echo reached out to leaders in arts organizations on the national, state and local levels for a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the upcoming season.

From the challenges they anticipate facing to their individual forecasts for the arts in the coming year, Jane Chu, National Endowment for the Arts chairman; Robert Booker, Arizona Commission on the Arts executive director; and Ralph Remington, City of Tempe Arts and Cultural Division deputy director, shared their thoughts on what lies ahead.

National: Jane Chujane_chu

Chairman, National Endowment for the Arts

In August, the Arizona Commission on the Arts hosted Jane Chu, 11th chairman the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). During a brief, two-day tour, Chu visited several nonprofit arts organizations, spoke with local artists and participated in a town hall conversation at Mesa Arts Center.

With a background in arts administration and philanthropy, Chu is also an accomplished artist and musician. She leads a dedicated and passionate group of people to support and fund the arts and creative activities in communities across the nation.

Echo: We are thrilled to have you visit Arizona. What can you tell us about your trip?

Chu: I have been touring and seeing the arts first-hand. We want to make sure all communities are engaged and benefiting from the arts. We also had the opportunity thank our key partners in the communities like the Arizona Commission on the Arts. Our goal is for everyone to be involved with arts. So, in visiting with our partners in different states and regions, we gain a treasure of knowledge and broader understanding about what’s working well and where the needs exist.

Echo: What do you see happening with the arts?

Chu: We are moving away from that old, tired perspective that the arts are separate from the rest of society. Or that they are only for some people and not for others, when we know that it is not true because when artists create they draw in a deeper level of meaning and value and new energy. They are able to find new solutions to old problems and then solve them in unexpected ways.

Echo: What’s the state of funding for the arts?

Chu: On the national level, the arts generate 743 billion dollars in revenue; that’s 4.2 percent of the gross domestic product. Also, the nonprofit sector is responsible [for] 12 billion dollars in revenue. For the last two years, we have been able to get increases for the NEA because we are making the point that the arts have an impact on economics, education and foster understanding and inclusiveness.

Echo: Is there a program that makes applying for a NEA grant more accessible?

Chu: On the national level, it can be so bureaucratic to apply for a government grant. We have seen neighborhood and small organizations that are doing really good work, but just cannot get through all the paperwork. So [we] have a program, Challenge America, that is designed for smaller grants that simplify the application process. It bypasses the lengthy applications and encourages organizations to pursue smaller grants. It’s a jump-start grant. A number of the Challenge America grantees have said, “Now I’m ready to take on the process for a larger grant.”

Echo: What is your perspective on the changing role of the LGBTQ community?

Chu: The arts are one of the best avenues to honor diversity of all kinds. Generally speaking, we will continue to be very mindful that we all celebrate diversity. Interestingly, the NEA received a special Tony Award on the day of the Orlando shooting. I was in New York to accept the award. The amazing thing that happened was that everyone who was getting an award and everyone behind the scenes stopped to make sure we acknowledged our collective support to honor the victims of that tragedy.

State: Robert Bookerrobert_booker

Executive Director, Arizona Commission on the Arts

Robert Booker is the executive director of the Arizona Commission on the Arts, whose mission is to imagine an Arizona where everyone can participate in and experience the arts.

He joined the agency in January of 2006, and was previously the executive director of the Minnesota State Arts Board.

Echo: What excites you about the coming arts season in Arizona?

Booker: The performing arts across the state continue to thrive and grow. Specifically, smaller and emerging dance and theater companies are creating new work that reflects a truly local voice. Semi-pro symphonies in suburban and rural communities are growing and building larger and more diverse audiences. New leadership among our major arts institutions has brought fresh ideas and new energy.

Echo: What challenges do you envision in the coming year regarding funding, audience development and outreach?

Booker: Funding for the nonprofit arts industry is and always will be a challenge. Generally, earned income makes up about 60 percent of their annual budget and contributed income 40 percent. The lack of major corporations and foundations supporting the arts and a very modest investment from the state contribute to the fact that the arts in Arizona are undercapitalized.

Echo: What strengths does the local arts scene possess?

Booker: Recent studies conducted by the Arizona Commission on the Arts reveal that Arizona out-paces otherwise comparable states in arts participation numbers. In other words, demand for arts experiences is high and our arts organizations are doing a good job of meeting that demand.

Echo: How would you describe Arizona’s arts community?

Booker: We are still a growing community with tremendous opportunity for the development of new theaters and dance organizations, galleries, literary arts organizations and small presses, particularly in comparison to more established arts communities in older cities. We are still creating the Arizona we want and that includes the development of new organizations and the growth of established ones.

Echo: Is there any development that specifically offers promise for the future?

Booker: We are seeing a resurgence of the socially engaged artist and community arts organization. Increasingly, they are initiating and facilitating dialogues and working with community members to develop creative solutions to local challenges. Consider the central role our artists are playing in the national dialogue about racial equity, for example. Historically, artists have always been trailblazers, raising awareness, questioning assumptions and showing a path to the future. Remember the incredible work created during the HIV/AIDS pandemic that not only provided information, but challenged our government, the pharmaceutical industry, and bigotry.

Echo: As the LGBTQ community moves toward greater inclusion in the mainstream, how do you view the role of LGBTQ artists?

Booker: Let’s face it, members of our community have been involved in creating art since some person picked up a rock and started drawing on a cave wall. I am guessing it was a gay guy that had a flair for decorating. We have been engaged in all the arts over time and continue to have a strong voice using the arts as a platform. We must not forget those incredible artists and their voices. Artists [such as] Keith Haring, Gertrude Stein, Ma Rainey, Truman Capote, Robert Mapplethorpe and James Baldwin have all contributed their talents to America and the world. Arizona has a rich diversity of organizations and artists that speak to the LGBTQ community. Unity has always been one of the strengths of the community.

Echo: What is your aspiration for young artists?

Booker: I am hopeful that young artists will take on the challenges of the world, poverty, homelessness, HIV/AIDS, water, bigotry, migration of people, and health care, among others. As LGBTQ artists, we have the power to change our country, give voice to the voiceless and create communities that are inclusive and equitable.

Local: Ralph Remingtonralph_remington

Deputy Director, City of Tempe Arts and Cultural Division

As the new deputy director of Arts and Culture for the City of Tempe, as well as artistic director of Tempe Center for the Arts (TCA), Ralph Remington is responsible for overseeing the Tempe History Museum, the Edna Vihel Center for the Arts and public art projects.

Remington previously served as an assistant executive director of Actors’ Equity Association, a director of outreach programs for the prestigious Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., and the director of theater and musical theater for the National Endowment for the Arts.

Echo: As a newcomer to the Valley, what has surprised you most?

Remington: I’m surprised by how vibrant the theater and the overall arts community is here. I’m encouraged by all of the people who think that support for the arts is a natural and necessary component to have a great quality of life.

Echo: What are you plans for the arts and cultural activities in Tempe?

Remington: We’re trying to get fully staffed to respond to all of the things suggested in the Tempe Arts and Culture plan. We want the Tempe Center for the Arts to become a town square to deal with pertinent community issues as they arise. I’ll be creating a cool environment to hang out after work or after school. We’ll have mixologists, cool cocktails, tasty tidbits and cool music. We’ll also be creating a new performance/play festival in conjunction with producing a play from TCA, which I’ll be directing.

Echo: What is your strategy for dealing with issues related to funding?

Remington: Funding is always challenging, but I will be getting out into the community and letting folks know there is a new TCA with an energized purpose. Regarding fundraising, we’ll also be hiring a development director, which will be doubly important as we make aggressive moves into producing. Our biggest challenge lies in the fact that a lot of the dates for the coming year have been taken already by our partners and various rental situations. As we plan upcoming seasons, we will take all matters into consideration to ensure equitable distribution.

Echo: Since you will be focusing on producing, what’s your assessment on the local talent pool?

Remington: The level of talent in the area is off the chain, which makes me hopeful because we’ll have a dynamic pipeline as a talent feeder. We also have great young future audiences. We intend to create programming that captures what millennials want to see. I’m also hopeful because of possible future collaborations with artists like Michael Rohd, Liz Lerman and Daniel Bernard Roumain at ASU.

Echo: If you could wave a magic wand, what would you like to see done?

Remington: I’d like TCA sponsored by Northern Trust to be producing six shows a season and presenting a full roster of multidisciplinary artists … I want to get into site-specific work and possibly start producing and presenting street theater down the road.