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The Pursuit of the Arts 

A priority for public good

The following is an address given to the City Club in Boise on Sept. 16, 2009, by Mark Hofflund, managing director of the Idaho Shakespeare Festival, chair of the Idaho Commission on the Arts and a member of the National Council on the Arts from 2005-2008.

In the age of the Internet, whereby we can see virtually anywhere on the face of the Earth, let's try for a 30,000-foot view of arts policy before focusing in on the artist.

City Club provides a forum to look at the issues of greatest community importance. Let us ask if any are issues of greater importance than life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? And, if they are still uppermost, how these rights might be related to the arts.

First, what priority do the arts have in the history of our civic lives? And really, are they, in fact, important to public policy?

To quote George Washington, "The arts and sciences are essential to the prosperity of the state and to the ornament and happiness of human life. They have a priority claim to the encouragement of every lover of his country and mankind."

Let's look at that more closely: The arts have "a priority claim"—not "the" priority claim, but "a" priority claim (perhaps with life and liberty)— essential to the "prosperity of the state" and the "happiness of human life."

We'll get back to the prosperity of the state through the arts; first, let's look at the happiness of her people.

The pursuit of their happiness: It makes sense, doesn't it? After all, what good are life and liberty—which we have and which we hold—if they do not lead us to pursue something more?

George Washington wasn't the only one who thought the arts essential to the pursuit of happiness. Our second president, John Adams, studied politics and war—life, at its darkest—so that his sons "may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy," which Adams thought they ought to study (along with such things as geography, history, navigation, commerce and agriculture) in order to give their children "a right to study paintings, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain"—in short, to pursue the arts.

And then our third president, Thomas Jefferson, agreed to give the lawmaking branch of government (Congress) his library, if they would agree to a Library of Congress that included all his books, not merely the law books. Jefferson thought the laws and policies of the United States would inevitably touch on all aspects of human activity. And, indeed, Jefferson's library became the storehouse for all books published in the United States. It is a singular and unique statement­­—our Library of Congress­—dedicated to the marriage of art and law; dedicated, indeed, to a nation's pursuit of happiness.

More than 40 years ago, the National Endowment for the Arts was born. Since its inception, its servant-leaders (including a number of key ones from Idaho) shaped public policy in the arts, and literally gave a fragile democracy a lifeline to pull itself through a period that saw the decline of virtually all civic institutions, from churches to service organizations, from public education to political parties, from newspapers to bowling alleys, where bowling leagues were disappearing as we famously started bowling alone. We were becoming a people who lived apart from each other, a people afraid for their children's safety, a people whose pursuit of happiness depended more and more on a lucky chance rather than through a long-term investment in creative skills, persistent experience and an unquenchable thirst for lifelong learning.

In the midst of all this fragmentation, our modest national arts agency was born and soon planted seeds in every state and territory, not to mention hundreds and then thousands of communities across America. Where there had been barely a hundred orchestras in America, now there are 1,800. Where dance companies were confined to a few large cities, they now have spread into towns and hamlets across the land. Where 27 opera companies existed in the entire country, scores have emerged to produce American operas now finding their place in the repertoires of historic European companies. Where professional theater existed in few places beyond New York, there now are some 2,000 professional companies nationwide. And we're not even talking about the visual arts, the literary arts, the folk arts, the media arts and architecture. All told, the arts constitute the primary profession of nearly 2 million people (a figure just under the number of men and women on active duty in the military, and­—as a category of worker—larger than doctor, accountant or lawyer); 100,000 not-for-profit arts organizations are members of the American business community, employing people locally, purchasing goods and services, and promoting the distinction, livability and happiness of their communities while generating $166 billion in economic activity.

George Washington may have been right in putting the arts at the head table, as essential to both the prosperity of the state and the happiness of human life.

Let me close with a brief story about the future of the arts in Idaho. I literally ran into a friend two nights ago pedaling his bike home from a martial arts class on an old flat tire that allowed me to keep up with him on foot. He's an artist: a musician, composer, sound designer and would-be samurai. He told me that the arts are going to become increasingly important because they reconcile contradictions—contradictions in our politics (Basque dancers v. separatists), contradictions in our perceptions (Ralph Regula v. Gingrich, Armey and Delay), contradictions in our lives (pioneers who brought art with them to set up the contradiction between themselves and the rest of the rabble and to instill art and higher aspirations in the lives of their children).

An important one to note is the contradiction of our world of the Internet. Mentally, we can go anywhere now, but physically, we stay seated more than ever before. Our requirements as a species will require that we find both physical activity and physical connection with each other. Our brains will require this, too, until we have virtual bodies. We need physical movement and training to stay mentally sharp. My friend is seeing artists and studios becoming more and more commonplace. This is because every art form requires a physical mastery of some kind: a training by which the body masters limitations in order to express itself through art. And there must be places in which it can do this; places in which masters and students train one another; places built not so much on fundamentals of capitalism as on their contributions to a community reliance on loyalty, continuity and volunteerism.

One dares say this new, real-time, human economy also may help us ward off our loneliness, fear, want and the consequences of age and ill health.

Can it, as a pursuit of happiness, build our community, our nation and our kind? Every great culture would seem to point to an answer in the positive.

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