Monday, August 15, 2011

What did you do in the arts wars, daddy?

Today I celebrate my 20th anniversary as a Wyoming resident. I was a relatively young man embarking on a new career in arts administration. In 1991, I didn't really know what that entailed. I was just happy to be working as the literature program manager at the Wyoming Arts Council.

Some people get degrees in arts administration. Many more wander blindly into the field through their arts pursuits. I'm in the latter camp. In pursuit of an M.F.A. in creative writing, I discovered that the arts need administering. Poet (and past Colorado poet laureate) Mary Crow asked if I'd be interested in serving on a committee for the CSU Fine Arts Series. Mary was very persuasive. I agreed.

Next thing I knew, I was attending even more meetings when all I really cared about was my fiction writing. But a few months into it, I found myself having lunch with Pulitzer Prize winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks and escorting the legendary Ethridge Knight to a workshop at the Larimer County Jail. I drove to DIA and picked up National Book Award winner Larry Heinemann and spent the day picking his brain about "Paco's Story" and his experiences in Vietnam. Over the next two years, the writers came in quick succession: Linda Hogan, Maya Angelou, Russell Martin and David Lee. Lee, a CSU grad and one-time Utah Poet Laureate, wanted to see his old campus so I took him on a tour. We were both surprised that my T.A. office was right next door to what once had been the dorm room of a girlfriend.

I was a bit star-struck in the literary sense. But what most impressed me was that part of the university's mission was bringing fantastic writers, dancers, musicians and visual artists to campus to provide students personal contact with some of the best creative minds of our day. The Fine Arts Series was funded through taxpayer dollars and student fees. And many volunteer hours. While so many university pursuits seem oriented around sports, it was encouraging to see that the same sort of dedication was directed at the arts. The arts were important. They needed administering and I might just be the person to do that.

My first grant application went down in flames. That just incited my Irish stubbornness and I studied the tenets of good grant-writing. My second grant application was rejected. I began to realize that there was an arts infrastructure. I contacted the Colorado Council on the Arts. They freely gave their advice. And I also heard that there was a program that provided grants for artists and writers in schools. I signed up. But before I could do my first residency in rural eastern Colorado, I applied for -- and was hired for -- the position as lit guy at the Wyoming Arts Council.

Twenty years later, I still like my job. I now supervise all grants and fellowships to individual artists. I learn something new every day. There are days when I butt heads with a disgruntled visual artist or writer or performer. They care deeply about their work, as do I.

The arts can be a battleground.

The arts mean creativity. Our current Tea Party-dominated politics reject government involvement in the "frivolities" of the arts. The Tea Party represents selfishness and fear. The arts represent creativity and hope and the future. And a righteous anger at the politics of the past.

That's why I do what I do. Creativity and hope. I want to leave a better Cheyenne, a more vital Wyoming, and a better world for the next generation.

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