Below is an eloquent and moving letter written by John
Pietrowski, Artistic Director of Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey.
It appeared in the NY Times on Tuesday, February 25, 2003.
Your letters or emails need no
be so long or detailed, but please do something. The arts we sa
ve may be our own.
PICTURES AT A FRIGHTENING EXHIBITION
Not soon after Governor McGreevey announced the demise of
the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, I received this e-mail
from a patron: "Amid a World War II budget crisis, one of Winston
Churchill's advisers urged him to shut down all the theaters,
concert halls, and art galleries in London in the interest of the
war effort. `Good God, man,' the English prime minister is said
to have replied, `What the hell are we fighting for?'"
And so last week we are told by McGreevey spokeswoman Ellen
Mellody the state is facing the worst budget crisis since WWII,
and as far as the arts and culture are concerned, it has come
down to "food on the table" or "hanging a picture on the wall."
Go ahead, make your comparisons. One almost need not say
more. But, in the face of a naive comment like Ms. Mellody's, one
must, and you'll have to excuse the tortuous phrasing here, but
what isn't "on the table" here is not food. What is not on the table
in New Jersey is what was on the table in London: visionary
Since when is art just a "picture on the wall?" Since when is it
dispensable? At least not since Churchill made that comment.
This may be an unfortunate misquote on Ms. Mellody's part, but
taken with McGreevey's choice to set the cultural allocation at
zero (and not at some sensible reduction), a pattern emerges
that defines his understanding of art. The apparent definition is:
art is a static passive affair, created by a chosen few to be
enjoyed from afar. Highbrow entertainment easily cast aside in
hard times. It is reverse snobbery manufacturing a working
class point of view that the working class does not hold. Why
else for him would art boil down to a "picture on a wall?" Nothing
could be more incorrect.
The arts in New Jersey have long since passed the static
passive phase, if they ever were there. Because of the
commitment of the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, on any
given day, literally thousands of children in schools across the
state participate in hands-on creative activities with professional
artists who are devoted to connecting them to their creativity in a
real way. They write, they draw, they sculpt and they perform. In
the evenings, both adults and children actively pursue creative
lives, whether they are professional or "amateur." Much focus
has been placed on the travails of the big cultural institutions,
but County Arts Councils regrant a large portion of state funding
for local community-based arts organizations. Thousands of
people make art at these places. They could not survive without
These people are not idly passing time. They are in pursuit of an
essential human need, which is to change the world in some
small way through the exercise of their imagination. Take this
away and you take away the foundation for progress in science,
technology, education, government, and any other field you care
to mention. As physicists like Albert Einstein and Richard
Feynman have proven time and again, all great change starts
with a new model, and new models start with imaginative work.
The rest follows from that. The arts are the gateway to this world.
The arts are not frivolous, they are essential to our survival. They
are the "food on the table" of our future. If you do the math, it
costs so little per capita to keep the foresight and the expertise
of NJSCA and its grant making activities intact, and the benefits
are so great (above and beyond the one billion dollars the arts
pumps into the economy annually), that unless one has ulterior
motives for its demise, it is economic suicide not to insure its
continued existence. The alternative, arts funding by line item in
the budget, does not work; only the well-connected will get
money (and that's where this will all go, and as much, if not
more, money will be spent). Nor does funding directly from the
governor's office work, it only politicizes the process in
unimaginable ways. NJSCA is doing an exemplary job, it is the
envy of the nation, it should be allowed its enviable status.
Governor McGreevey seems to have gone off track here. When
he told the citizens of this state he wanted to be the next "Arts
Governor," we were convinced he was a visionary leader. We
applauded his foresight. Now he just appears frightened. In hard
times, we can't go hiding in some concrete bunker and expect to
thrive. It is a defensive and fearful posture. We must feed our
souls and move forward, and that is the role of the arts in good
times and bad.
The governor should restore the NJSCA, and if he must, with a
cut that is fair and equal to cuts he has made in other areas. His
bravery will be admired, his leadership again applauded. He will
be giving the state more than a "table of food," it will be the gift of
a magnificent banquet that more than pays for itself. Only
creative thought will get us out of our current malaise. We have
no choice but to make that commitment.
Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey
973.514.1787 ext 11