Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Part XII: The Way Mike Worked -- Welcome to Wyoming

INTRO: "The Way We Worked" exhibit wrapped up its stint at the Laramie County Public Library on Nov. 16. This Smithsonian-sponsored traveling exhibit features interactive displays on various aspects of working in the U.S. Technology plays a major role, as you might guess. Assembly lines, automated farm equipment, telephone switchboards, manual typewriters, and the dawn of the computer age. The exhibit has moved on to other libraries. But while it was here, it prompted me to look closely at my own work history. My final batch of posts have to do with my life as an arts administrator. It's a specialty I knew nothing about until I tried out several other career paths. I was clueless when I started in 1991 and, by the time I retired in 2016, I had a few clues. I feel it's my civic responsibility to share them with you, no matter how many words it takes. 

My first year as literature program manager at the Wyoming Arts Council got off to a rocky start.

But it might not have started at all.

I was so tentative with State of Wyoming application that I filled it out by hand instead of typing it. I don't know what I was thinking. Or if I was thinking. I almost had an advanced degree, which I thought would be a plus. But my only experience in arts administration was as a reluctant volunteer in my university's Fine Arts Series. My only grant request thus far, for the Colorado State University English Department's Visiting Writers Series, was turned down by Fort Fund, Fort Collins' local arts agency, despite my eloquent presentation to the grants committee. I was 0-1 in the grants department.

On the plus side, I was a published writer and well acquainted with the literary world after three years in an M.F.A. program. I did some research and discovered that there actually was an arts administration degree track at a number of universities. What did this kind of person do? A lot, as it turns out. Grants, yes, but a list of other things. Outreach to non-profits, budgeting, arts promotion and marketing, diplomacy with hard-headed politicians, schmoozing with rich patrons.

That last one did not figure in my research. But it's a real thing, as I found out over the years. I am a liberal but a pragmatic one. Many rich people are Republicans. That doesn't make them bad, despite the tenor of today's politics. Many of these rich Republicans have an abiding interest in one or more arts forms, usually those that involve large buildings for symphonies, opera, and the visual arts. Most do not fund avant-garde or political arts projects as that can lead to trouble when some rabble-rousing artist makes art that enrages community leaders. The free spirit in me loves the free spirit in others. As a bureaucrat, charged with spending taxpayer money responsibly, well, you can see the conflict. More on this topic later.

My background in the arts was limited. I didn't attend a live symphony performance until well into adulthood. I was in my 40s before I first attended an opera. None of my K-12 schools had arts education beyond basic drawing and making some simple pottery that could be a bowl or an ashtray, the perfect all-around Christmas gift for Marlboro-puffing parents. None of my family members were artists. They tended to be accountants or nurses or insurance sellers. They would have seen an arts career as impractical. "That's nice as a hobby but how are you going to make a living?"

Good question.

I digress. I was applying to be an arts administrator in Wyoming. To my surprise, I landed an in-person interview. I drove up to Cheyenne. The staff interviewed me. They were trying to decide if I was someone they could work with. As I had already discovered in the corporate and academic worlds, it was important to be collegial in a small department where people often worked together.

One WAC staffer asked me what made me want to live in Cheyenne. I answered that I didn't want to live in Cheyenne -- I wanted to work at the Arts Council. It seemed like a perfectly logical answer. I didn't know anything about Cheyenne except that it was the capital city and sponsored a big ten-day rodeo every summer. When we moved to Cheyenne, people seemed dismayed that we had moved from Fort Collins, which was a weekend destination for adults and their teen children. Elders went to shop at Sam's Club and the city's mega-mall, eat dinner at one of the cool restaurants. Young adults went to party. And this was before legal pot!

I got the job. I was hired by director Joy Thompson who, by the end of the year, was on her way elsewhere. My first assignment was to drive to the Sundance Institute in Utah to meet with literary types from the region to plan a collaborative literary initiative. Joy told me they needed someone from Wyoming and I was it. So I teamed up with Robert Sheldon of the Western States Arts Federation (WESTAF) and we drove across Wyoming to Redford's place. A great intro to my colleagues in other states. National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Literature Program Director Joe D. Bellamy was there. I met reps from literary organizations like the Aspen Writers Conference and a sampling of writers, including Terry Tempest Williams and Ron Carlson.

I absorbed it all, spoke little. Hiked the mountain and pondered my future. I entered the cliche of "steep learning curve" but was prepared for the challenge. When I went to the office the next week, I was charged with coordinating the initiative for Wyoming. I also was tasked with researching, writing, and editing the WAC's 25th anniversary annual report. A tall order, because I knew nothing about the arts in Wyoming. As the WAC's first full-time staffer for literature I had much to do. I had to show that the investment was worth it.

That introductory year is now a blur. One thing stands out. When the 1992 legislature convened, I began to discover the precariousness of my position. Republican leadership declared war on Democratic Governor Mike Sullivan when he vetoed their latest redistricting plan because it was a clear-cut example of gerrymandering. They retaliated by zeroing out the budgets of all of Sullivan's favorite projects, including the Arts Council. This was a blow. Just when I was figuring out what was going on. I refreshed my resume and waited for the hammer to fall. I alerted my family. At the WAC, we mobilized the arts community and its members flooded legislators with calls and letters -- not sure if we had e-mail at that point. A few Republicans groused in public about what a nuisance artists and arts educators were. That seemed ominous. But the response was paying off.

I began to realize that the arts community in the state was a tight-knit web. Legislators had artist neighbors. Their kids were involved in the school orchestra or drama club. Relatives ran arts groups that brought artists and performers to their small towns. Cutting the arts budget was personal. And personal relationships are crucial to life in a place challenged by long distances and rough landscapes and weather. An important lesson.

This story has a happy ending. The budget was restored in a roundabout way but restored it was. Legislators learned a lesson, a short-term one at that as budget cuts to the arts and arts education were always a threat. I kept the resume updated. I was adding lots of experience as an arts administrator. Still learning, as it turns out. That never changed.

In 1993, the NEA came calling. And I answered.

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