The Arts have always been important. We need to keep remembering that.
Updated: Dec 5, 2020
Words and Images by BA Ciccolella.
This is me. I’m wearing a mask that a friend made me (thanks, ForgottenCotton- they are on Etsy). This was taken somewhat recently while I was doing one of my contracted gigs that hasn’t been cancelled yet- “regular” cleaning of a local theater. As I recall, I was smiling.
Every time I start trying to write this article, I am struck by the magnitude of everything that has happened since 2017, both nationally and personally. The sheer anxiety attack of trying to sort through all that is making it really hard to start. At the same time, the driving force in my life for the last decade or so has been my passion for the necessity of the arts in our society. (True story: This is what happens when you tell the high school valedictorian that they can’t take art classes “because you’re an honors student, those are for the kids who aren’t as smart as you”.)
It’s funny to me that in this weird, apocalyptic point in our lives that I’m even able to look back and see that I probably had a driving force for the last decade, because I can tell you that a little over a month ago I would not have been able to identify that for myself. The first time I remember having an answer for the question of “where do you see yourself in 5 years” was a year ago, and to be honest, I’m pretty certain this pandemic might be quickly changing that answer as well. Luckily, I’m used to heading in the direction the universe leads me (though I would love to be able to see a bit farther down the path).
A photo I took from the last show I worked on before everything hit. A Tale of Two Cities at Regent, luckily for the students, they were able to hold their whole run. I was the lighting designer.
In the last four years, I have helped run a successful House of Delegates campaign, become a full time Legislative Assistant in the House of Delegates, give up both of those projects to pursue my own goals (or pursue my own mental health, I think I’m still uncertain there), joined the Board of Directors for a local community theater company, went back to being a self employed gig worker in the arts (and we all know how that’s going right now). I am supremely lucky to have also started a part time job in a completely non-artistic field that I absolutely love- and that happens to be considered essential still- so for the moment, unlike so many of my colleagues, I do have a paycheck coming in.
And then about a month ago, just before the pandemic reached the States, I helped co-found this website so that we could have a place to put our theater reviews. The plan was always to expand coverage beyond the theater community, it just so happens that the pandemic forced our hands into expanding quickly. Now would likely be a good time to state that the opinions in this article are mine alone, and have nothing to do with Spotlight News.
A view of the Chrysler Museum from the footbridge in Norfolk.
Four years ago, I wrote a letter that was sent to my Senator, and also published on AltDaily’s website, because the federal government was planning on ending the NEA, and I believed that we need arts funding to be a proper society. Now that we are all stuck at home, I am struck by how important the arts are while everyone tries social distancing. Now that the performing arts have been cancelled, now that museums have closed their doors for our safety, it’s more important than ever that we remind ourselves how important the arts are to our communities and to our economies. Here is the letter which was written and delivered to Senator Warner’s office in April of 2017, and published on AltDaily in June of 2017 (with an introduction that I have omitted here as this introduction is more relevant).
Links added for the article were in the published article but not in the letter, please keep in mind that all numbers quoted are from the time the letter was written.
I moved to Hampton Roads, Virginia because a friend of a friend needed carpenters. Yes, unlike a good portion of the population of Norfolk, I moved here for this area’s arts scene. I was straight out of college, and I expected to take my job as a scenic carpenter at the Virginia Stage Company, spend 1-2 years in Virginia, build up my resume, and then go somewhere else, somewhere where they were making Art– but then I fell in love. It didn’t happen overnight, it actually took every day of the 2 years of being a scenic carpenter, and 2 different trips away to upstate New York for summer-stock, but I fell in love with the Hampton Roads area. That was 10 years ago. Mark Warner was the Governor when I moved here, and became my Senator just when I was deciding that I wanted to stay here long term. A lot has changed since then. VSC promoted me to Assistant Technical Director in the middle of a recession. I kept going to other states in the summer (when there was no work here), and worked my way up to Technical Director at two separate theaters. The economy didn’t come back in the arts as quickly as we hoped. There were lots of pay cuts. In 7 years there were 4 rounds of pay cuts or wage freezes. The company was restructured around the time I decided it was time to move on. There are far fewer full time jobs in the arts in Hampton Roads than there were when I moved here in 2006. Most of the people I know work multiple part time jobs to get by. I currently have three- I’m the Artist Liaison for the Virginia Symphony Orchestra, a Production Assistant for the Virginia Arts Festival, and occasionally I work a gig or two backstage at the Sandler Center for the Performing Arts. I also write for the Arts and Entertainment section of the Virginian Pilot to make a little extra money. I am a carpenter, and electrician, a lighting designer, a stage manager, a company manager, an event manager, and a hospitality manager, as well as a writer. I’m ultimately employable, and yet, I still rely on the ACA for my health insurance, because not one of these companies can afford to hire me full time or provide benefits. Over the last ten years I have worked with and for many of the Hampton Roads arts organizations. On top of that hustle to pay the bills, I find time to volunteer at the Little Theater of Norfolk, the Little Theater of Virginia Beach, writing for the AltDaily.com theater section, and occasionally I even answer phones for WHRO, our local NPR affiliate. Of all the places I have worked, and companies I have worked along side with, the majority of them rely on funding that comes in some way shape or form from the National Endowment for the Arts. The NEA helps fund the Virginia Commission for the Arts. I have attached to this letter a short list of the companies my close friends and I have connected with in my time here which receive that funding. (Not attached to this article for privacy, but you can find a statewide list here.) NEA funding is also considered essentially a “seal of approval” for arts organizations. Nationally, every $1 put in by the NEA is matched by about $9 in private or other donations. In the state of Virginia, every $1 put forth by the Virginia Commission for the Arts is matched by $16 in other donations to those organizations. Without NEA funding, the companies that we are employed by will not be able to continue with their missions, and we will be among the unemployed. In 2010 when the state of Virginia considered abolishing the Virginia Commission for the Arts, we wrote and called our state representatives, and we let them know that if they cut funding for the arts in Virginia, we would be forced to move out of state for jobs, and they would lose not only intelligent, engaged citizens, but also the tax dollars that come with our paychecks. If arts funding is cut nationally, the 5 million people employed by the arts and culture industry, including 2 million full time artists, will be in danger of being forced to go to other countries for work, or losing their livelihoods altogether. We are some of your most fervent constituents when you support our interests, we are also some of the most vocal citizens, and we have the biggest audiences. The NEA has a $148 million dollar appropriation. With that investment, America gets back a $742 billion dollar Arts and Culture industry- this encompasses 4.2% of GDP. All 435 congressional districts benefit from arts funding, but the biggest benefit culturally goes to rural areas, who don’t tend to have as many higher level donors, and might not be able to bring arts to their area without the NEA. The NEA revitalizes communities, and also supports military service members with their Creative Forces: NEA Military Healing Arts Network- one of their clinical sites is at the Joint Expeditionary Base on Little Creek in Norfolk. Most importantly, the NEA, according to their own website, “creates an environment for the arts to bloom and thrive”. They protect, support, and document all culture in the United States: Native American culture, African American culture, our living heritage of regional folk cultures as well as what we refer to as “high art”. (https://www.arts.gov/) They also provide project-specific grants to organizations around the country. In the time I have lived in Hampton Roads, I have seen the Virginia Arts Festival receive $35,000 to put on Bernstein’s Mass in 2010, the Virginia Stage Company receive a $40,000 grant that same year for the creation of the play The Comfort Team, which we premiered in 2012 (I was their Assistant Technical Director at the time- I worked on the set). The Virginia Symphony Orchestra was also recommended in 2016 for a $10,000 grant for their Harmony Project, which would bring their music to religious organizations with minority populations in this area. The arts are also proven to help in education. Many studies conclude that the arts help students with other core subjects, like math and reading. Arts programs have been cut back in our schools since I was a kid. Prior to attending college, my last art class had been in the 7th grade. My college preparatory school did not see it as an important part of an honor student’s curriculum. They required multiple science classes in a year, and expected that we would go on to work at NASA, or cure diseases. I stand here with you today, as my high school class valedictorian, with a passion for the arts that I had to discover on my own. A passion that I had to reach for, and that for the majority of my life, seemed just out of my grasp. I can only hope that my high school would be as proud of their unexpected arts major today as they were the day they sent me off to DC for a week with the Presidential Classroom program. Art is our culture. Art is what separates humans from other species. Art is viscerally important to human survival. I’m not one of the “coastal elite”. I grew up in the Appalachian Mountains in Pennsylvania in a home that had a wood stove as our main source of heat. It doesn’t take any special type of person to be affected by art- we all have the need to express ourselves. Our founding fathers knew that for the health of a democracy, the citizens need to have the ability to put forth their ideas; so much so that freedom of speech is enshrined in the first amendment of our constitution. What better use for our government than to support the citizens as they do just that?
A photo from my last visit to the FDR memorial. “The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts today. Let us move forward with strong and active faith.”
Arts organizations need your help. If you find yourself in a place where you are able to support your favorite arts organization, they will appreciate it. Have tickets to a show that was cancelled? Consider donating the cost of the ticket to their operating costs rather than asking for a refund. Looking to support a museum? Consider becoming a member even if you can’t go in the building for a while. Can’t donate money right now? Know that everyone understands. We are all in the same boat, and we will get through this together.