A summer fellowship in the Arts Education department of the NEA in 1989 marked an important point in my involvement in the arts. It was the summer of Tiananmen Square and my daily commute to the Old Post Office Building took me by the Chinese Embassy where large crowds regularly gathered around a plaster-of-Paris replica of the Statue of Liberty to give voice to a global protest. One night outside the Corcoran Gallery of Art, I joined a crowd of activists who were projecting slides of Robert Mapplethorpe’s work on the side of the building where an exhibit of the artist’s work had just been canceled due to the controversy over federal funding of art that some find challenging and others find offensive.When the Mapplethorpe exhibit came to my hometown, Cincinnati, several months later, the Director of the Contemporary Arts Center was arrested and charged with obscenity. The show went on, and the charges were eventually dismissed. At times, over 5,000 people waited in block long lines to view the controversial photographs. I don’t think I’ve ever been more proud of my city or my federal government for recognizing the importance of art in enlivening our national dialogue and for providing the symbols that inspire humanity.
Three summers before my Fellowship at the NEA, a few of us who had just graduated from art school started a professional theatre company in downtown Cincinnati. At the time, it was only the second professional theatre in town and the urban core in which it was located suffered under the poverty, drug abuse and crime that visited many American cities in the mid-‘80s. Emboldened by a vision of an Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati (ETC)--one that employed resident actors as opposed to hiring itinerant talent--we persevered through hard work and a blend of public and private support that underwrote the production of new plays with more swagger than scenery. Today on the eve of its 30th anniversary, ETC sits at the center of a reinvigorated urban arts district in a city whose evolving reputation for culture, cuisine and commerce is a testament to former NEA Chairman, Rocco Landesman’s tagline, “Art Works”.
Thanks to the NEA, I work too. My fellowship led to employment in arts councils, art centers, fund raising, and philanthropy. Today I’m proud to work for the Mayerson Foundation whose support of a wide array of civic, health, and arts organizations includes the nation’s only K-12 public school of the arts. With the support of the NEA, our Foundation underwrites a Master Artists Series at the School for Creative & Performing Arts (SCPA) in which some of the world’s great artists present master classes for SCPA’s 1,500 talented students. By partnering with key arts organizations, many of whom are also recipients of NEA support, our Foundation is able to leverage visiting artists who share their gifts with the next generation of great American artists. Joshua Bell, Emanuel Ax, Branford Marsalis, Bebe Neuwirth, Chick Corea, Nico Muhly, Dance Theatre of Harlem, eighth blackbird among many others come to SCPA from nearby venues where they’ve recently performed for thousands. In classrooms with students in the tens or twenties, Joshua Bell takes out his multi-million dollar Stradivarius to discuss the history of his extraordinary instrument; or Anne Akiko Meyers demonstrates her practice techniques; or Jimmy Heath shares his lifelong career as a pioneer of jazz. These are intimate experiences that we’ve found can make profound differences in the lives of students. Most of the students at SCPA come from low-income households. Often, they are the first in their families to go to college. We are proud of the number who graduate from high school (in the upper 90%), and of those who go on to college. For those who chose to attend a college of art, we take special pride and share that pride with the NEA. After all, in four or so years, maybe some of those SCPA alums will write a grant application to the NEA to fund their new chamber music ensemble, their photography exhibit, or their new play. Maybe they will even be good enough to get arrested for their conviction that art is here to inspire the new age of human experience.
A compilation of highlights from the Mayerson Master Artists Series at SCPA. Funded in part by the NEA. Video courtesy of Jeff Siebert