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A LIttle Friendly Persuasion 

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Wednesday, April 17, was Arts Advocacy Day in Illinois. I hope yours was pleasant. I celebrated in the traditional manner. As president of a small advocacy group called the Evanston Performing Arts Coalition (EPAC), I traveled down to Springfield to lobby my elected representatives for more money for the Illinois Arts Council--the state agency charged with "cultivating the arts in the lives of all Illinoisans."

It was my first visit to the state capital--and, inasmuch as EPAC is a very young organization, my first time actually lobbying anybody. A much older and bigger arts advocacy group, the Illinois Arts Alliance, had recruited me, along with about 100 others from various interested organizations like the League of Chicago Theatres, the Mexican Fine Arts Museum, the Prairie Center for the Arts, Northlight Theatre, and the Hammers and Noters Dulcimer Society of Morris, Illinois. Our goal was to prod our legislators into raising the Arts Council's annual grants budget from $18 million to $24 million--or at least to keep them from cutting it. The alliance had a full afternoon of politicking planned for us; they provided a workshop, an awards ceremony, speakers, lunch, even a bus.

But I hate buses, so I chose to drive. All the way down it seemed the only news on the radio was about the state fiscal crisis and the deep and painful budget cuts they were getting ready to make in Springfield.

I got in about an hour before the festivities were to begin, and headed straight for the center of my Arts Advocacy Day universe: the Capitol Complex. This is a large square, on and around which stand various government buildings including the capitol itself. The first thing I noticed about the Capitol Complex, after the high dome of the capitol, was how unencumbered by terror-era security precautions it appears to be. One can drive around it, park nearby. When I walked into the Illinois State Library right across the street, the guard left my bag alone and apologized profusely for having to check my ID. There was something almost nostalgic about it.

As it happened, the library was lousy with librarians. Scores of them, identifiable by their top-of-the-line, plastic-covered, hand-printed name tags, streamed out of the building as I walked toward it, having just rallied in preparation for their own day of advocacy. They were hyped and ready to make their case to 59 state senators and 118 representatives--or more probably, given that a good many of them seemed to be headed away from the legislative offices in the Capitol Complex, to get some lunch.

I'd gone to the library to sit awhile and peruse the Arts Advocacy Day handbook I'd been given by the Illinois Arts Alliance. Consisting of 12 xeroxed pages, the handbook contained loads of interesting information. I reviewed the "Ten Short Tips on How to Lobby for the Arts in Person" (point one: "KISS: Keep it short and simple"), checked the stats on Illinois Arts Council grants (example: in fiscal 2001 the council awarded 1,702 grants that employed 141,128 artists). Mostly I tried to absorb the pages of bullet-pointed facts calculated to demonstrate the social, economic, and educational value of the arts; i.e.:

"The nonprofit arts in Illinois generate more than a billion dollars each year."

"Students involved in theatre are 40% more likely to interact with members of other racial groups and 40% less likely to endorse racist remarks and attitudes than other students."

"In a national sample of 25,000 students, those with high levels of arts learning experiences earned higher grades and scored better on standardized tests than those with little or no involvement in the arts, regardless of socio-economic status."

And on and on. This sort of stuff never ceases to fascinate me. I mean, for me the arts are so self-evidently good and profound, ennobling and essential--and then there's this proof, this objective verification that, yes, in fact they're all that and an economic engine, a catalyst for social harmony, and a way to ace the SATs as well. Does it make me a good advocate or a bad one if I don't understand how anybody faced with these facts could consider the arts anything but uncuttable?

Well, we were going to find out this very afternoon. The Illinois state legislature didn't necessarily share my unambiguous confidence in the arts. Though it had appeared for a while that Arts Council funding might at least hold steady in the coming year--if only because the dollar amounts involved were so small as to make a reduction pointless in the great scheme of things--there was now a Republican proposal to cut funding significantly. Even an advocacy neophyte like me knew that some people, including powerful and sophisticated public officials, are suspicious of art. They see it as a kind of con game, not unlike three-card monte: there's a trick in there somewhere but they keep missing it, and meanwhile they've lost another 20 bucks.

From the library I walked over to the old Journal-Register building on Sixth Street, where all the Arts Alliance advocates were to convene. We sat at rows of long cafeteria-style tables, eating box lunches. I met up with Richard Friedman and Tara Mallen from the Northlight Theatre in Skokie. Since Northlight and EPAC share the same house and senate districts, we'd decided to hit our legislators together.

Kathleen Parker has an office in a part of the capitol building that was obviously created by taking one very tall room and slicing it horizontally into two short ones. It's not cramped, exactly: you can stand up in it. But the proportions are so foreshortened that you feel like hunching over. In any event, it was an opportunity to get an unusually good look at some nice old crown molding. A Republican state senator from Northbrook, Parker wasn't in her office when we arrived. She was down on the senate floor, successfully blocking an attempt to raise toll road tolls to 75 cents. The corridor by her office, however, was full. Great herds of amateur lobbyists flowed through, looking like nothing so much as tourists just disembarked from a cruise ship for a half hour's shopping in Cancun. One group wore baseball caps featuring a slogan about mental health; another was decked out in oversize T-shirts emblazoned with an antihandgun logo. Here and there was a button saying "Do the Right Thing"--though it wasn't readily apparent what that might be.

They were mostly old people with time for causes, or slightly greasy true believers. The mental health bunch included young adults with Down's syndrome. They crowded around the various secretaries, who were not merely courteous but jovial. Everybody seemed happy, in fact. "Laugh about it shout about it when you've got to choose," as Paul Simon said. I decided that if I lived in Springfield I'd be over here all the time. This was the great bazaar of democracy, people going from stall to stall shopping for influence.

Senator Parker arrived, trailing clouds of glory from her tollway triumph. Compact, exceedingly well-groomed, and gracious even after a morning spent fighting with people, she had us wait a bit while she received an old man whose lack of a hat, message T-shirt, and buttons made him seem terribly dignified and mysterious. We were joined meanwhile by David Burden, a professional lobbyist--complete with credentials strung from a lanyard around his neck--who has done work for the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, in which the Northlight Theatre is housed. Burden's avuncular presence should have been reassuring--with his white hair and ready smile he looks like one of those semiretired actors who sell supplemental health insurance to seniors on TV. But it had the opposite effect on me. Around him, I felt like the outsider I truly was.

The dignified and mysterious old man left. Senator Parker ushered us into her office.

And what happened? Not a whole lot. I handed her a folder with some information in it; she sat behind her desk with it opened before her, looking attentive. Richard, Tara, and I introduced ourselves. (David, of course, didn't need to.) I told her we'd come, as constituents, to ask her to support a $24 million grants budget for the Illinois Arts Council. She asked how much the council was getting now, and that's when I lost all presence of mind. I knew that $24 million represented $6 million more than the council was getting, and that all I had to do was subtract $6 million from $24 million to arrive at the current amount--but I just couldn't make that operation happen in my head. Not there. Not then. Richard very kindly suggested $16 million, which I should have accepted just to end the silence. Yet I felt compelled to persist in my mental search for the correct sum, even as my credibility ran screaming from the room.

Senator Parker maintained an even keel throughout. We managed somehow to crawl out of the pit of arithmetic--and I thought I did rather well when it came to waxing lyrical about the arts, which tends to be my strong suit. The rest was shaking hands. The meeting was over in a couple of minutes ("KISS: Keep it short and simple"), but ended without a commitment from the senator (point seven: "Be direct by asking at the end of the meeting, 'Will you support my cause?'"). Downstairs in the capitol rotunda, a group of children was performing in support of something, to loud music that echoed off the high walls.

Back at the Journal-Register building, the Alliance's Advocacy Day program was winding down with remarks by a succession of arts-friendly legislators--among them the two representatives whose districts include parts of Evanston: Julie Hamos and Jeffrey Schoenberg. Their presence eased my lobbying anxieties considerably.

The elegant Hamos used the inelegant image of cockroaches to explain how elected officials evaluate letters from their constituents. That is, just as ten roaches on the kitchen floor suggest swarms behind the baseboards, so politicians figure that ten letters from constituents portend an as yet unseen groundswell of feeling in the broader population. Getting heard, in other words, is easier than one might think.

Jeffrey Schoenberg, by contrast, had no tactical advice to offer. The proverbial great big teddy bear--albeit a teddy bear with formidable house committee assignments--he'd simply come to declare himself. "I think of myself as the guardian angel of the angels" who advocate for the arts, he said, beaming at the crowd through wire-rimmed glasses.

Yes, yes, these were my representatives. I was home.

The final event of the day was to be a reception and awards ceremony at the as yet unfinished Springfield Center for the Arts honoring Governor Ryan's wife Lura Lynn, visual artist Don Baum, and others. I had over an hour to waste until then, so I started walking toward the Oak Ridge Cemetery, site of the Lincoln family tomb. It was a longish walk through the ring of flimsy old wood-frame houses that forms a kind of moat around the capital's neoclassical core and makes one realize how southern Springfield really is. On the far side of that ring is Monument Avenue, a short street of well-kept bungalows festooned with American flags and bunting as if in perpetual anticipation of a parade. At the end of Monument are the gates of the cemetery, and from those gates I could see Lincoln's tomb, surmounted by an obelisk, a statue of the man himself, and bronze friezes of the Civil War. (I also saw the tomb of Governor John R. Tanner [1897-1901], which, with its rough-hewn dome and oversize pillars, could easily be mistaken for the final resting place of Fred Flintstone.)

On the path toward the Great Emancipator's memorial, I encountered another: an oddly festive--even enthusiastic--sarcophagus belonging to a guy named Roy Bertelli. Evidently Bertelli decided that the significant themes of his life should be recorded on the stone sides and top of his grave. There were references to his military service, an inscription reading "God Bless America," a photograph of him holding his accordion, and the honorific "Mr. Accordion." Soldier, citizen, musician. It was impressive--and bizarrely appropriate: a four-square statement about patriotism and the arts. The next Arts Advocacy Day, I thought, will start right here.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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