Capitol Ideas

Mr. Silva goes to Jefferson City

The lone artwork in the Truman Building -- the multistoried concrete-and-glass bunker that houses offices and conference rooms catty-corner to the Capitol in Jefferson City -- is a lackluster oil portrait of Harry S. himself. Because the Truman Building is one of those efficient, featureless multipurpose facilities, the absence of art doesn't exactly stand out, but on a day when some 400 citizens arrive at the Capitol to advocate for arts funding, the lack of even an inoffensive picture of a flight of ducks says something about the uneasy relationship between art and government.

To commission art for the Truman Building would be, presumably, more trouble than it would be worth. It probably took a majority vote in committee just to get light and oxygen. The legislative wrangling to approve of an art object that wouldn't offend some thin-skinned constituency is probably more than most representatives want to undertake these days.

The politicization of the arts is nothing new, of course, and it existed long before the National Endowment for the Arts or the NEA Four. When Oedipus Rex first took to the boards, it was for a state-funded theater festival, with a few wealthy patrons contributing to the cause and undoubtedly given Powell Club amenities in return. Macbeth was performed at James I's court and probably created a little tension, what with the story of an overly ambitious Scottish king being performed before an overly ambitious Scottish king. The legend of Michelangelo on the scaffold arguing with Pope Julius II about God's two-dimensional demeanor is a tale artists consider heroic and statesmen probably don't care to consider at all. Better that the colorless Truman Building remain so.

Yet the older Capitol -- with its architectural symbolism derived from Enlightenment ideals, as opposed to the Truman Building's postmodern lack of ideals -- is known (at least among those who've studied any American art history) more for the art it contains than for any legislative achievements. The Thomas Hart Benton murals reside there, third floor off the rotunda. They remain as a stunning testimony to an artist whose critical reputation has dimmed in recent years. Asked about Benton's legacy after getting off the train in Jefferson City, one artist put it best: "He had a good student."

That Benton got commissions from the state of Missouri and Jackson Pollock got them from Peggy Guggenheim suggests something about the relationship among art, public funding and private patronage, although, like all relationships, what to glean from this is not altogether evident. Before they made work that sold to a precious, and influential, few, Pollock and most of the other artists who burst forth with abstract expressionism had subsisted on WPA dollars. Maybe what can be said is that artists need dough to develop work, and whether that work receives negative or positive attention or both, without that work life isn't as lively as life can be. If a combination of state and private funding for the arts was good enough for Sophocles, it ought to be good enough for us.

And this is why a multitude of artists and arts advocates make the trek to Jeff City for Citizens Day at the Legislature, an annual event sponsored by Missouri Citizens for the Arts (MCA), the lobbying arm of the Missouri Arts Council (MAC). The purpose of the day, according to MCA executive director Debra Carnahan (the name is more than familiar -- she's the guv's daughter-in-law), is to "give a cohesive presentation from concerned citizens who know the importance of the arts and to let state representatives know they know who's who."

"Visibility" is the key word -- to let state reps know that behind that $5.16 million MAC request are a significant number of voting citizens who support it, and they aren't a bunch of slackers in berets, either. Boarding the Jeff City-bound train in Kirkwood is a tribe of well-attired suburbanites, mostly female, mostly middle-aged.

One of the younger and more fresh-faced who is ready and eager to bend some elbows is Scott Giffen, arts administrator for Gash/Voigt Dance Theatre. He's the only one in this artsy crowd attired in the standard congressional blue suit and red tie. He's been with Gash/Voigt just six months, fresh out of Greenville College with degrees in both music and business. "I'm passionate about supporting the arts," he says, tan trench coat tucked under his arm. He has big visions for this day on this, his first visit to the Capitol: "I want to promote the arts in every way I can. I hope to talk to conservatives. I understand capitalism and what it entails. You have to find a balance between government help and freedom in the arts. I recognize the need for government support, especially for small and midsize organizations.

"I also hope to learn because I want to continue to do this and do it well. I want to listen and make it a point of understanding. If I listen, there will be a better response to what I say."

Giffen picks up a packet for a legislator, Vicki Hartzler, Republican from Harrisonville, just the kind of budget-cutting conservative he wants to meet.

Throughout the day most of the arts boosters meet with staffers rather than the legislators themselves, but Giffen calls ahead and actually gets an appointment. He's excited. Although this is his first time pressing the legislative flesh, Giffen, with the attitude appropriate to a crusader, is prepared to charge in right away.

His charge leads him to a Kafkaesque cluster of offices, with Hartzler emerging from one shoebox, a stack of papers in her hands. She's Republican pretty, slim in a Nancy Reagan-red suit. "Are you looking for me?" she asks amicably.

Giffen requests just 15 minutes, and the time-conscious representative amends that to five. As she talks to her receptionist, Giffen perches in Hartzler's office, editing his pitch, leavening his broad ambitions to conform to effective sound bites.

Hartzler returns to her desk and assumes an attentive posture. Behind her is a framed print, a portrait of Washington kneeling in prayer at Valley Forge. Unfortunately, there's no time to discuss with her the irreligious nature of the father of our country, or the power of art to propagate false history. It's Citizens Day, and this citizen has five minutes. In the days before smoke-free environments, maybe legislators lit cigarettes and said, "When this is done, so's your time."

Giffen starts in, but he's new to this, and the message lacks cohesion. Hartzler eyeballs the info in the packet and actually helps him along a little bit, asking appropriate questions about specific funding requests.

Too quickly, Giffen is talking about Gash/Voigt and their concern for presenting "women's issues from an encouraging standpoint."

"Women's issues" strikes a nerve. Hartzler asks pointedly, "Do you take a stand on abortion?"

For the record, Gash/Voigt does not do "pro-choice" art, whatever that might be. Their work is much more abstract than that, although they often work with young women on "empowerment" issues, meaning, through dance, a sense of one's own body and a sense of one's own self. Gash/Voigt would be the last company to do coat-hanger art.

Giffen sidesteps Hartzler's question somewhat ungracefully but in a way that seems to suffice. "I'm pro-life," Hartzler announces to no one's surprise. "I'm glad to hear you're not using tax dollars one way or another." But then she adds that she was a high-school teacher before she aspired to the House. She's worked with at-risk girls, knows the harsh realities of anorexia and bulimia. Hartzler begins to sound like one of those compassionate conservatives.

Her attentive posture begins to wane, though. Giffen keeps edging for dialogue. The five minutes are stretching into awkwardness. Hartzler has work to do. Giffen gets the hint and takes his leave.

"I keep knocking, get my foot in the door," he says encouragingly once in the hallway. He's going to write her a follow-up letter the next day, he says, but right now he just wants to sit and collect his thoughts.

The presentation of the 2000 Missouri Arts Awards follows in the rotunda, with two St. Louisans -- printmaker and Webster University professor Leon Hicks and playwright/director/producer Joan Lipkin -- being honored for their career achievements along with four others. Gov. Mel Carnahan gives a surprisingly rousing affirmation of arts funding and his role in getting it. The awards are handed out, with presenter Bill Levi of the Missouri Arts Council repeatedly pronouncing theater as thee-A-tur. Lipkin makes the most impassioned acceptance speech, acknowledging the history of her family, Russian Jewish immigrants who feared the government they left behind. Now, their American daughter is being honored by the government. More than a few in the audience get misty-eyed. Who'd have thought Lipkin would turn into the star-spangled girl?

Afterward, Jean Carnahan welcomes attendees at the door of the governor's mansion for a reception. On an unseasonably warm February evening, a few guests head outside with plates of food and drink. Imagine: Artists, an oddly demonized working class, at the seat of state government, being treated with all the official decency respectable constituencies deserve.

All is not Athens, though. A story is told about an audience with Republican state Rep. Jon Dolan of Lake St. Louis. Apparently Dolan supplied information about his own arts background. "My wife likes impressionism," Dolan reportedly said, "but I'm just along for the ride."

When the arts advocates pitched for additional funding for the successful Fine Arts Academy, a three-week intensive arts camp for high-school students in Springfield each year, Dolan responded, "As long as no one's throwing dung on the Virgin Mary, I'm all for it."

Art and the state continue their wary dance.

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