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Celebs Play the Role of Lobbyist for Arts Day

It’s not every day that Members of Congress share a stage with the likes of Fiona Apple, Harry Hamlin from “L.A. Law” and George Wendt of “Cheers” fame.

Yet, when members of the Congressional Arts Caucus attended the kickoff breakfast for Arts Advocacy Day on Tuesday, they proved that passion for the arts makes strange political bedfellows.

The event, sponsored by Americans for the Arts, brought art together with political savvy and often sounded like a lobbying how-to session, as members of the Caucus encouraged those from the organization to meet with Members and Senators to “tell a story” of the importance of arts funding.

The celebrities were among a group of actors and singers from the Creative Coalition, which also participated in the arts lobbying Tuesday on the Hill.

Americans for the Arts also honored Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) with the 2005 National Award for Congressional Arts Leadership for his role as co-chairman of the Congressional Arts Caucus and various arts advocacy activities, including co-sponsoring floor amendments to increase funding for the National Endowment for the Arts.

“We are encouraging colleagues to recognize both the spiritual and the material value of the arts,” Shays said.

Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) told the organization that Members of Congress make decisions based on anecdotes, as long as the anecdotes match the facts.

“Every Member has at their fingertips the story of the meaning of arts for them, their constituents and their country,” Holt said.

The speakers also focused on the economic impact of arts funding, noting it as an important selling point to Members of Congress, especially for the NEA.

“This is not charity. This is something that pays us back in ways we’ll never know,” said Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), co-chairwoman of the Congressional Arts Caucus. Slaughter noted that for a $120 million arts budget, the federal treasury gets $5 billion back.

Americans for the Arts also released a study on “Creative Industries” and the impact of arts on the economy. The organization broke the statistics down politically to aid their lobbying, finding that more than half of the 435 Congressional districts have more than 10,000 “arts-centric” employees.

Members also discussed the difficulties of receiving increased funding for arts initiatives, particularly the NEA. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) called the $120 million arts funding “less than a comma” in the scope of the federal budget. Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.) called it “appalling” that the United States spends more on advertising American agriculture abroad than it does on arts funding at home.

After the program, Shays discussed the difficulty of obtaining more funding for the arts.

“The challenge is that many people, especially on my side of the aisle, think that government doesn’t have a role in the arts,” Shays said. The moderate Republican added that the government can fund the arts without controlling or restricting it, even if it may exclude some of the more “avant-garde” aspects.

Shays said that he is “very optimistic” the arts will receive more funding, adding that he is grateful to President Bush for not cutting the programs in the most recent budget.

Both Shays and Slaughter have personal, as well as political, connections to the arts. Both of their districts rank in the top 50 Congressional districts for employees in “art-centric” businesses and organizations, according to the study by Americans for the Arts.

Slaughter recounted her childhood appreciation for the arts and her past experiences of singing in a band as contributing to her love of the arts.

“I got involved with the arts because of ‘Alice in Wonderland,’” Slaughter said of the love of books she developed while growing up in Kentucky. She added that books let her know “there was a world outside.”

Shays’ parents were both actors, and Shays said in a statement that he “grew up in an arts family.”

“My parents, both performing actors, met in the theater. Listening to my father play the piano each night and hearing stories from their days on the stage gave me a profound appreciation for creative expression,” Shays said.

Apple and Wendt also spoke of their day of arts lobbying.

“We are just trying to get our points across and state our position,” Apple said in an interview after the presentation.

“It’d be cool to fund the arts even if there wasn’t an economic return because it’s hard to measure people’s cultural life on an economic scale,” Wendt added.

While examining their schedule of meetings with Representatives and Senators, the two noticed House Appropriations Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.).

“Hopefully we won’t have to explain the importance of the arts to Jerry Lewis,” Wendt quips with a laugh.

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