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The unformed bloc: Can Chicago artists get political?

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Artists do not exist for art alone, says Thomas Tresser; they are also citizens with political obligations. With that in mind, Tresser is trying to do in Chicago what has rarely been done anywhere before--mobilize the arts community into a powerful voting bloc, a bloc that can in turn help elect candidates who are solidly on the side of the arts and the artists.

As founder and president of Greater Chicago Citizens for the Arts, Tresser has been fiercely fighting the proposed Helms amendment, which comes up for reauthorization in 1993 and which would, among other things, prohibit the National Endowment for the Arts from allocating money for the creation of "obscene" art. But his agenda is much broader than that--Tresser wants nothing less than to create a comprehensive local and national arts policy. "If the arts are valuable to people," Tresser says, "then we have to have good public policy to support them. We shouldn't go around attacking artists, calling them pornographers. Our politicians should be supporting them instead."

In 1990, shortly after Tresser resigned his post as managing director of Pegasus Players, he took a research trip funded by the MacArthur Foundation to look at how the arts communities in major cities were organizing to fight censorship. He found the most impressive example at a meeting of the San Francisco Arts Democratic Club, which was interviewing political candidates in an effort to decide which ones to endorse. Tresser saw politicians pledging to meet with members of the arts community every month and to increase arts spending in a city that already spends more per capita on the arts than almost any city in the nation. Tresser decided that if San Francisco could get artists involved in politics, so could Chicago, and Greater Chicago Citizens for the Arts was born.

The arts community Tresser's organization targets is a scattered one. There are approximately 50,000 artists in Cook County, but Tresser says only a few thousand are involved in any kind of political organization. That's a lot of undirected political clout. "The actors and directors and designers who float through Chicago's 120 theaters are not members of anything," he says. "We're trying to reach people at the bottom of the food chain: the actors, the administrators, the visual artists, and especially the strong arts patrons."

The fact that arts patronage is strong in Chicago but city government spending on the arts is weak is partly what steams Tresser. A recent economic survey done in Los Angeles estimated that arts in that city--museum exhibits, performances of various kinds, etc--generate about $5 billion a year in income. Tresser estimates that almost 18 million people a year attend arts events in Chicago, which should generate more than $1 billion a year. But the city's four major arts granting programs (City Arts, Neighborhood Arts, Community Arts Assistance Program, and Cultural Outreach) spend less than 50 cents per taxpayer per year combined. Compare that to San Francisco, a city a third the size, which spends more than $10 per person.

The outlook isn't much brighter on the federal level; Chicago artists and arts organizations received approximately $3.1 million from the NEA in 1992. That's slightly less than $1 per person. Something, Tresser says, is wrong here.

In January, like any lobbying organization, Greater Chicago Citizens for the Arts sent a questionnaire, signed by Tresser and artist Ed Paschke, to local and national candidates in Chicago asking them questions about their stands on the arts. The questions included, "Do you support or oppose content restrictions placed on grants by governmental arts agencies?" and "What are your views about the arts in our communities?--with specific comments about arts and community development, arts and education, and arts and cultural heritage."

Based on replies to these questionnaires, GCCA developed a "proarts" slate of candidates, including Democrats Carol Moseley Braun for the U.S. Senate; Mel Reynolds, Luis Gutierrez, Dick Simpson, Sidney Yates, and Gary Skoien for U.S. House; Curtis Edlund for the Illinois senate; and Republican Rosemary Mulligan for the Illinois house. Skoien and Edlund were endorsed primarily because they opposed antiarts incumbents. Skoien faced Philip Crane and Edlund faced Walter Dudycz, notorious for his reaction to Dread Scott Tyler's 1989 flag-on-the-floor exhibit: originating legislation that rescinded grants to the Illinois Arts Council and the School of the Art Institute. Both Skoien and Edlund lost their primaries March 17, but all of GCCA's other candidates except Simpson won.

"Were we the margin of victory?" Tresser asks. "No. But many people told me that because of our work or our writing they voted for Carol Moseley Braun over Al Hofeld. Our only problem was that we didn't endorse enough candidates. But we raised $5,000 for Braun, and that ain't hay. Even if we weren't able to mail to all the artists in the city, we got a lot of publicity that reinforced good opinions of these candidates. The arts community had been absent from the political game too long, and we finally got noticed."

The politicians seem to be taking GCCA seriously. "We hadn't developed a platform position on the arts," says Scott Trombley, former campaign manager for Mulligan, who is running in the 55th District. "It certainly was new to see a questionnaire on this issue. There are lots of policy-related questions on the arts, and it's fair for GCCA to ask candidates to take a stand on the issue."

"I'm impressed by what they're trying to do," said Doug Scofield, a campaign strategist who's managing Gutierrez's run in the Fourth Congressional District. "It's urgent that the arts community have an effective political lobbying arm. This is the most politically organized response to attacks on the NEA I've seen. We were excited to get the endorsement."

Sidney Yates, U.S. representative from the Ninth District, wrote in a November letter to Tresser: "You're absolutely right--now more than ever before artists must stand up for what they believe in and get involved. Good luck to you in this very necessary and important endeavor." A canned response, perhaps, but Tresser will take any support he can get.

GCCA has been sponsoring a number of activities to get artists involved in the political process. Tresser and others have been conducting voter-education and political-organization projects--telling newly relocated artists where and how to register, providing information about canvassing procedures, and teaching artists how and where to poll-watch.

The next step, Tresser says, is to mobilize a statewide campaign on behalf of the five candidates who won their primaries, with an "Arts for Braun" campaign getting top priority. Tresser's goal is to raise $100,000 and field 1,000 volunteers for Braun alone. "Right now we're creating a little ground swell," he said. "Even arts organizations in conservative areas of the state not considered pro-Braun territory are getting excited."

Eventually Tresser would like to take his fight to the national level. He thinks there's a lot of proarts feeling out there, and he may be right. According to a recent Harris poll, 64 percent of Americans would be willing to spend $10 more a year in taxes for the arts. In the same poll, 75 percent of respondents agreed with the statement "Government can be helpful to artists in funding their work and in helping them gain recognition, but government must not dictate to the artist what the artist should create."

Ten dollars per person per year toward the arts would be a huge increase from what the government spends on them now. The average Chicago household gave the federal government $2,539 in taxes in 1990. Of that money, $1,275 went to the military, $226 to health care, $71 to education, $40 to housing, and 70 cents to the arts. "That shows where the federal priorities are," Tresser said. "States go bankrupt trying to fill that gap."

The San Francisco Arts Democratic Club has fought for a redirection of certain hotel taxes to the arts and helped provide tax breaks for artists who live and work in the same place. "You have to behave like a constituency," says Brenda Berlin, president of SFADC. "Artists should convince politicians that arts relate to economic health, that arts mean jobs for the city." In San Francisco, 1 of every 11 jobs is arts related.

SFADC has also succeeded in getting some proarts language into the California Democratic Party's official platform, to be presented at the National Democratic Convention in July. The platform now states that the party supports a fully funded NEA "free of political coercion and cultural censorship." It also defends "the right of artists to create art that offends; even art that offends us," and rejects attempts to limit funding to National Public Radio and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Berlin has proposed that the national Democratic Party put similar language in its platform, with the addition of this sentence: "The Democratic Party recognizes that cultural pluralism is the philosophical basis of American society and that all publicly operated funding programs must support and recognize the contributions of the nation's diverse cultures."

Tresser says the multicultural focus is inevitable, because this new kind of arts advocacy is "about democratizing the process." Berlin says this is important because "multicultural [arts] groups are having an especially difficult time. We've got to learn how to share the wealth."

SFADC has received pledges of support from California politicians like Representative Barbara Boxer and has been lambasted by ones like Representative William Dannemayer. Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton responded to an SFADC questionnaire by saying that there would be no lessening of federal funding of the arts during a Clinton administration, but that "publicly funded projects should strive to reflect the values that most Americans share." In his slightly more progressive response, Jerry Brown said "public funding, committed to cultural diversity and administered without a censorship component, is necessary to support the rich diversity of artistic expression in America."

This diversity, Tresser says, is increasingly coming under attack from a powerful and well-organized coalition of right-wing lobbying groups, the largest being Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition. "He's on record as wanting to abolish the NEA," Tresser said. "They were very happy there when [former NEA head John] Frohnmayer got fired." Robertson started setting up municipal and county chapters of the Christian Coalition after his failed 1988 presidential bid. One of the chapters is in Illinois.

"They've hired a state director and they're organized in four or five counties," Tresser said. "When the Christian Coalition has been set up in other states, like California and Florida, they've attacked arts exhibits. That's what I'm waiting for them to do in Chicago."

Ralph Reed, executive director of the coalition, has been quoted in the right-wing Christian newspaper Christianity Today as saying, "We think the Lord is going to give us back this nation one precinct at a time, one neighborhood at a time, and one state at a time." At a "Road to Victory" convention held in Virginia Beach in November, the coalition sponsored speeches by Dan Quayle, Helms, and Dannemayer, who said the Christian Coalition must take control of local school boards to stop gay-rights advocates from pushing a "homosexual curriculum." Other speakers included rabid prolifer Phyllis Schlafly and Robertson himself, who said, "I'm tired of having the rights of the 90 percent of Americans who believe in God trampled on by the 2 percent who don't believe in anything."

This is the movement Tresser and others are fighting, and it's a hard uphill battle. "They're working on a scale that's unimaginable," Tresser said. "They've got $200 million to do what I'm doing with toothpicks and Band-Aids." But it's a battle, he says, that people who care about the arts will be willing to fight.

And he's got some specific ideas about how to fight it. He'd like to see an "arts and economic development team" in Chicago, with representatives from community development organizations, banks, arts-service groups, major foundations, the Department of Cultural Affairs, and the Department of Economic Development. He also advocates establishing a cultural development fund to finance mixed-use community development projects that include an arts component. Other proposals include increased arts programming in schools, a research center that would study the economic impact of the arts on Chicago, and an arts endowment, a dedicated revenue stream that will attempt to integrate arts planning into the city's master plan. The arts sector is big business, Tresser says, and with some good candidates and a little money it can overcome anti-NEA, antiarts politics.

"Even if you have good arts advocacy," he says, "if you have no money it's hard to get good policy. When you start counting up our resources, we've got hundreds of thousands of people supporting the arts every week. We've got the resources. We just need to make ourselves more directed."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.

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