Art Works Blog

Art Talk with Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley

Today we are celebrating the 2013 NEA National Heritage Fellows with an interview with Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley who spoke with us about the importance of the folk and traditional arts and his own career as a traditional Irish musician.

"A community united by the ideals of compassion and creativity has incredible power. Art of all kinds---music, literature, traditional arts, visual arts---can lift a community." --- Martin O'Malley, Governor, State of Maryland

NEA: What do you remember as your earliest experience of the arts?

MARTIN O'MALLEY: Music has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Some of my earliest---and fondest---childhood memories were walking home from school to hear the sounds of Clancy Brother records my mom had been playing on her record player. In high school I participated in school plays, and started playing in a band.

NEA: In addition to your political career, you've also had a parallel career as a musician and songwriter. Can you talk about that---how you became involved with Irish music, what it's like to write songs and be a public performer, etc?

O'MALLEY: I started playing in the band during high school---I actually started it with a group of guys who were all ten years older. We came into the market at the right time. There were seven Irish bars that were in demand for full-time music, and there were only about four full-time bands.

I’ve been playing music ever since. It’s a part of who I am, and in a sense it’s a part of who we are as Marylanders with such a strong musical and artistic heritage.

NEA: How has your career as a musician informed your career in public service, and vice versa?

O'MALLEY: Marylanders are at heart a creative and forward-looking people. Our heritage is shaped by a diversity of musicians and artists, from Cab Calloway to Toni Braxton to Billie Holiday, Phillip Glass, Nils Lofgren, Lisa Loeb, Frank Zappa---and then you include other creative Marylanders like Barry Levinson, John Waters, Matthew Weiner. The list goes on and on.

I do not believe it is a coincidence that the same people---the people of Maryland---who would be willing to make record investments in public education in times when other states were firing teachers to plug recessionary budget holes, would also be a people who have historically embraced the creative arts.

Dividing the space on a canvas, studying meter and rhythm, learning from the great works of literature---these things are all inherently connected to process information or solve complex equations. It’s all connected.

NEA: This morning we announced that New England-based Irish fiddler Seamus Connolly is a 2013 NEA Heritage Fellow. Can you say a little about Connolly's importance as a traditional musician?

O'MALLEY: Seamus Connolly is one of the world’s most respected Irish musicians. From being inducted into Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann’s Hall of Fame to founding the Gaelic Roots Lecture Series at Boston College, Seamus has kept traditional music alive for a new generation to discover and love.

NEA: We've had several Heritage fellows from Maryland, including bluesman Warner Williams, and decoy carver and painter Lem Ward. Can you talk about the importance of the folk and traditional arts?

O'MALLEY: The traditional arts are a vital part of our culture, keeping us connected to our heritage and enhancing awareness of Maryland’s unique folk artists. In Maryland, we have Maryland Traditions, a program where living legends can share their skills with an apprentice. The Maryland Traditions program nurtures living traditions, forges bonds to history, and inspires young people to be a critical part of this chain of humanity.

NEA: You have remained a consistent supporter of the Maryland Arts Council throughout the national economic crisis. Why is it important to continue to support artists and arts organizations even when dollars are tight?

O'MALLEY: In Maryland, the arts industry is a billion-dollar industry. Every $1 of arts organizations’ operating budget generates $3.78 in total economic activity.

Many of our arts organizations offer arts education. In the 21st-century economy of innovation and ideas, the arts foster creativity, a job skill that continues to grow in demand. Arts education provides the critical thinking, communications, and innovation skills that will give our students a competitive edge in the modern workforce.

If we want to give our children the type of future they deserve, and if we care about strengthening our American workforce so we can compete to win, we need to make choices that focus on both the right and the left parts of the human brain. In Maryland, we choose to invest in our #1 asset: the talents, skills, ingenuity, and creativity of our people.

NEA: Which musicians are on your playlist these days, and why?

O'MALLEY: I’ve been listening to a lot of Bruce Springsteen lately. What Springsteen articulates in his body of work, in the ideas he articulated in the Rolling Stone interview with Jon Stewart last year, is a fusion of two concepts of history with the American Revolutionary idea of the dignity of the individual. There is a wheel as the wisdom of the Celts and the wisdom of other ancient people saw it---of seasons of life, of human history.

America is the vehicle, the ark of a new social covenant formed and fueled by our recognition of the human dignity of one another. We are moving, struggling, falling short, repeating mistakes, stepping forward again, despite the mess we've made of our journey because "the country we carry in our hearts is waiting."

NEA: What do you think is the role of the artist in the community? Conversely, what do you think is the community's responsibility to the artist?

O'MALLEY: Our communities and artists are dependent on one another. Our thriving cities and towns rely on our artists to bring creativity, beauty and, of course, economic activity to our main streets. And, as a community, we need to offer our artists the resources and support to continue to create.

NEA: At the NEA, we say that "Art Works," meaning the work of art itself, the way art works to transform us, and the artist as a contributing worker. What does "art works" mean to you?

O'MALLEY: It goes back to the connectedness of creativity and innovation. A community united by the ideals of compassion and creativity has incredible power. Art of all kinds---music, literature, traditional arts, visual arts----can lift a community. Art can inspire an individual to find an avenue of expression that opens new possibilities for creativity and innovation.

Visit the NEA News Room to learn more about Irish fiddler Seamus Connolly and the other new NEA National Heritage Fellows.


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