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Monday, November 16, 2009

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Executive Director's Column

Executive Director's Annual Report to NASAA

NASAA Executive Director Jonathan Katz

I delivered these remarks as my Executive Director's Report to the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies during its annual meeting on November 6, 2009.

Novelist William Gibson, who coined the term cyberspace, said, "The future is already here—it's just not very evenly distributed." I would like to think "the future is here" in North Dakota, where the state arts agency budget has just increased 7%, or in Arkansas, where the governor just added half a million dollars in discretionary funds to the arts budget, or in Minnesota, where a constitutional amendment just created a revenue stream for the next 25 years that will yield more than $20 million for the Arts Board in fiscal year 2010.

But the fact is that state government collectively is a $700 billion shoreline whose receding revenues came in $168 billion short in FY2010, about 24%, and the shortfall in FY2011 is projected at about $180 billion. Obviously, these are trying times for any agency of state government.

All the more reason to remind ourselves today that budget is only one measure of a state arts agency. What state arts agencies do to demonstrate the public benefits of the arts; to foster imaginative problem-solving in all realms of our collective life; to nurture thriving cultural industries; to ensure that every child has the opportunity to learn in and through the arts; to enable the underserved and the disadvantaged to participate in the arts; to help the people of a town or a city dramatize their issues, explore their identity, and shape their future—these are also measures of the value of a state arts agency.

And these measures of value are not abstract. They are inhabited by remarkable examples of the work that you, the leaders of state arts agencies, do.

For instance, Utah's Change Leaders program equips both arts leaders and community leaders with the skills to inspire action and lead change in their communities. This program has now graduated more than 50 leaders who are not only running arts organizations, but are leading entire towns in communitywide efforts to boost public engagement in civic life, to shape public policy and to foster creative collaborations between the arts and other sectors.

Florida's Arts in Medicine initiative taps the power of the arts in health care by connecting artists with health care providers across the state. Such alliances don't always come naturally, so having the state arts agency encourage those collaborations has been a key factor in improving the quality of care and the quality of life available to hundreds of patients across the state.

Ohio's Project Jericho is turning around the lives of youth in the Clark County Juvenile Corrections system. This program, supported by the Ohio Arts Council, has achieved national recognition as a model for helping troubled youth make new beginnings by using the arts to teach communications skills, job skills and planning for a future.

Vermont's Art of Action program is another great example. Through this project, visual artists help communities to envision solutions to their most pressing shared problems, such as land use, public safety, youth engagement and renewable energy. This program, which has been extended through a new traveling exhibit, demonstrates how the arts help us to dramatize society's challenges and imagine a different, better future.

I could mention projects like these in every state in our union. NASAA features them constantly in State to State, a column in our monthly e-newsletter, NASAA Notes. They show how state arts agencies make funding contributions—and also leadership contributions that are critical to community well-being and resiliency. By resiliency, I mean that complex quality of adaptability that enables an individual or a group to bounce back and move on.

Speaking of resiliency, I have just downloaded a handbook by Julia Fabris McBride entitled Resilient Leadership: Reflections for Turbulent Times. Some of you know Julia from her years with the Illinois Arts Alliance. She describes five "doorways" to resilient leadership, each of which is associated with skills and tools. She talks about cultivating one's presence, making space for renewal, and practicing gratitude as personal disciplines.

I want to focus for a moment on optimism and courage. Optimism, Julia points out, is not just confidence in your ability to cope with challenges; it includes acknowledgment of pain and loss, creative engagement with colleagues, and a bit of advice I like very much: "Indulge in the tangible success of service." And when she discusses courage, Julia reminds us that the word comes from the Old French corage and means "the ability to stand by one's heart or one's core," to align purposeful action with core values. Courage is not necessarily a doorway to easy action, or value by others, or satisfaction with what you have done, or even success. But it's difficult to imagine being resilient without it. It's difficult to imagine working on behalf of a state arts agency without it.

When state budgets balance and government is stable, we have seen state arts agency budgets outpace the growth of state budgets overall. We may see that again. Our optimism and courage, however—our sense of resiliency—should come from the sure knowledge that when a state invests in its arts agency, it is saying our stories are worth telling. It is saying that our identity—which is the connection between our place and our people—is important to us, that we will empower our people to imagine an ever-improving future, that our economy may be challenged, but we will celebrate the richness of our creative spirit, because without that, we would be truly impoverished.

This is a year during which an increased level of member engagement will be necessary to achieve NASAA's policy goals, to maintain our federal resources, to strengthen our federal-state partnership, to ensure that congressional and state government leaders understand the value of our work, and to collaborate most constructively with other national organizations. As much changes in our governmental and cultural environments, the evolution of our work in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts is particularly important. Please look forward to hearing from the NASAA board and staff about how you can contribute this year to the collective resiliency of all state arts agencies.

At this time, I want to thank NASAA's executive committee, board of directors, committees and advisory groups for their leadership. I am indebted to NASAA Chief Operating and Financial Officer Dennis Dewey, Chief Program and Planning Officer Kelly Barsdate, and Chief Advancement Officer Laura Smith. Thank you to each NASAA staff member. You are my dream team. Most especially, thank you to each NASAA member state arts agency. You created NASAA, you sustain NASAA, and NASAA exists to support what you do. I am proud to work for you.