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Wednesday, February 26, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Art and the 5th: Brown and McMorris Rodgers discuss art and humanities

By Tod Marshall For The Spokesman-Review

For months, Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Lisa Brown have offered their visions for the 5th District; they have discussed health care, economic issues, veterans benefits, environmental concerns, and educational opportunities. Both have given a sense of who they are as individuals, a perception that is also reflected by their ads broadcast throughout the region.

And yes, it’s important that politicians talk about the economy: jobs matter. Access to health care and educational opportunities matter. Affordable groceries and support for the agricultural sector matter. National defense and international trade agreements matter. All of these issues are of consequence. People, though, are also interested in hearing candidates talk about other ways that life is meaningful, such as through music and dance, theater and painting. People want well-stocked libraries and community events that create dialogue, moments where they can meet those who are new to their communities and re-acquaint themselves with neighbors. The arts and the humanities are, of course, places where we encounter this diversity and ambiguity – the experiences that stretch us and help make us open to mystery.

Elected officials – and those seeking office – should be interested in these subjects. But don’t take my word for it. Spokane City Council president Ben Stuckart writes, “Elected officials should have a strong background in and an interest in history and philosophy because without those you are rudderless. Acting with no moral compass. Further, elected officials should care and support the arts and culture because without them communities have no soul. A community with no soul is a dead community.” Rachel Siracuse, city council member in Republic, says, “An interest in art, literature, philosophy and history helps a person to be well rounded and deep rather than shallow-minded.”

I asked our 5th District candidates to offer voters a perspective on the arts and humanities, on subjects that may not be part of a usual campaign speech. They both provided responses. In the last month leading up to the election, I hope that we hear more from both of them about these concerns.

Q. Can you tell us the first time that you felt that the arts were important? What works of art have added meaning to your life?

Brown: I grew up in a rural community in central Illinois, without a lot of exposure to the arts in my family. I studied French in high school and college, and a French teacher organized a trip to Chicago where we saw the art museum and the opera “La Boheme.” Coming from a small town and visiting the city of Chicago for the first time, the entire experience, but especially the works of art, made a significant impact on me. In college, I was inspired by the poetry of Langston Hughes, Sylvia Plath and Rainer Maria Rilke, and the music of Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. Now I’m drawn to local visual and musical artists and authors who I have had the opportunity to meet, for example: Bay Area artist Chris Brown, local artists and authors such as Harold Balazs, Sharma Shields, Jess Walter, Ursula Hegi, Kate Lebo, Sam Ligon and of course my son, musical artist Lucas Brookbank Brown.

McMorris-Rodgers: I am grateful for exposure to arts in school as well as involvement with arts in the small rural communities I grew up in. For years, I was involved with the Woodlands Theatre in Kettle Falls and was inspired by the talent in our region and how the small theater brought the community together. Libraries are also critical in the education and intellectual growth of our communities and I have been a longtime supporter. One of my earliest encounters with the arts was piano lessons. I began learning piano when I was 6 years old, and I still enjoy playing now.

For works of art that have added meaning to my life, I’d choose “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost. I see it as a positive, inspiring poem. It’s good to reflect on our choices, and to seek to make good choices even if that makes the journey harder, because it is worth it in the end.

Q. People in rural regions of the 5th district find it difficult to access the arts; their libraries struggle to stay open; theaters and galleries in these small communities face economic challenges. During the next congressional term, how would you address this issue?

McMorris-Rodgers: Without a doubt, one of the most difficult jobs facing Congress is setting national priorities for how we spend taxpayer dollars. As you know, both the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities advance many of the goals that help keep Eastern Washington’s artistic imaginations vibrant. I appreciate the role that the NEA and the NEH play, as our nation continues to accrue annual deficits of nearly $1 trillion, it is important that we analyze every program and evaluate its place within our nation’s priorities. Moreover, where possible, we should look for opportunities to facilitate partnerships between artistic organizations such as the NEA and NEH and the private sector.

The House passed legislation earlier this year which provides funding for both the NEA and the NEH. H.R. 1625, the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018, provides roughly $152.8 million in funding for each organization. This is a roughly $3 million increase for each organization from last year. H.R. 1625 passed the House with my support on March 22, 2018, and was signed into law by President Trump on March 23, 2018.

Brown: It’s great to see local art venues throughout Eastern Washington thrive, such as the Davenport Theatre and the newly renovated Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at WSU. Federal funding of the national endowments for the humanities and the arts can provide seed funding for rural area arts projects, which is important. I also think access to high-speed internet is critical for the creative economy to flourish in rural areas.

I’ve worked throughout my career as a proponent for the arts. In the state legislature, I secured funding for Spokane’s Fox Theater and the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture and was an original sponsor of the Motion Picture Competitiveness Bill, which has helped accelerate film and video production in the region.

To help address this issue, I would join the Congressional Arts Caucus, which is a bipartisan organization for Members of Congress to support the arts.

Q. A budget involves many compromises. More specifically, are you in favor of the federal government supporting the arts and humanities? Are there specific programs within the NEA or NEH that you feel are especially important? In 2017, President Trump suggested eliminating the NEA and NEH altogether. How would you protect the NEA and NEH budgets from elimination?

Brown: Yes, I believe the federal government should support programs in the arts and the humanities. The NEH has excellent, essential grant programs that serve our country in new ways, be it digital projects for the public, or fellowships for individual artists. Both NEH and NEA consistently find new ways of spurring creativity, so that the public is exposed to diverse takes on the present and the past.

Our region’s universities benefit especially from these grants, enhancing and expanding educational opportunities for students and faculty. Most recently, Gonzaga University’s Center for Public Humanities used a NEH grant to explore public dialogue surrounding two different war eras – World War I and the wars of Afghanistan and Iraq.

This administration’s priorities are wrong when it comes to the arts and education funding, which should be a top priority. In Congress, I would work to protect the NEH and NEA budgets from cuts.

McMorris Rodgers: I do support the NEA and NEH. We have many competing demands for federal funding, and of course we need to balance support for the arts and humanities against many other priorities, from national security and public safety, to agriculture, infrastructure investment and our veterans. As I previously mentioned, our nation continues to accrue annual deficits of nearly $1 trillion, and it is important that we analyze every program and evaluate its place within our nation’s priorities.

Q. During my travels throughout the state as poet laureate, I met people who believed in the importance of “words that matter.” How can we restore people’s faith in language, in words used carefully, truthfully, with deliberation, grace, and sincerity?

McMorris Rodgers: I applaud your focus on the importance of “words that matter” and speaking with truth, grace, and sincerity. Over the past two years, I have led a commitment to civility, co-chaired a Peaceful Community Roundtable and hosted Unity dinners to encourage a constructive conversation in our community.

Brown: Authentic leadership, art and storytelling resonates when it comes from a place of sincerity and truth, and a genuine desire to serve or inspire others. Unfortunately, this does not describe most political messaging in our country. Because of our first amendment rights, political speech is largely unregulated, which I support. Therefore, it’s not illegal to not tell the truth in a political ad, but it is wrong. Voters deserve civil, respectful, and honest discourse from their elected leaders at all levels of government.

Q. Is it important for an elected official to have an interest in art, literature, philosophy, and history? If so, why?

Brown: I believe an interest in these subjects is essential, because an appreciation for and depth of knowledge in any of these areas helps elected officials understand the unique needs and experiences of the people they are serving and anticipate how legislation and other actions might impact them.

Art, literature, philosophy, and history are all subject areas that explore the impact of past events, new ideas, and more on our collective consciousness, and allow us to experience the same event or idea from a different point of view. An appreciation for these subjects, and the exploration of ideas that entails, goes hand in hand with a desire to understand the region and constituents an elected official serves.

McMorris Rodgers: Yes. More broadly, our support for the arts and humanities is an important part of celebrating and preserving our nation’s heritage. Take the local example of the MAC in Spokane, which holds a collection of truly remarkable and precious Native American artifacts that is a treasure for our own community and far beyond. We must work to protect our cultural heritage, by making sure that institutions like the MAC have the funding they need, from a variety of sources.

Q. The arts and humanities teach the value of each individual. Support to the public schools and organizations that bring these opportunities to a community is essential. How would you help expand, not reduce, the need for and support of organizations that provide arts and humanities activities for all ages? (This question was submitted to me by Joyce Weir of Newport).

McMorris Rodgers: We must try to foster creativity, and especially to engage our young people in exploring these different ways to express themselves. Efforts to improve and invest in arts education are more often local, and those local initiatives are typically more effective than a top-down approach.

On a related note, I’m always delighted to promote the annual Congressional Art Competition for high school students to showcase their artistic abilities. The winner represents Washington’s 5th District by displaying their artwork in the U.S. Capitol for the year. Our three runners-up display their artwork at my local offices in Spokane, Walla Walla and Colville, where they are much enjoyed by visitors, constituents and myself. I’m always impressed by the talent and creativity of these students.

Brown: Public support for education in the arts is essential because of its inherent value, but also because it helps foster skills we need for an innovative economy. I am intrigued by the idea taking hold in some communities to turn STEM into STEAM, including the arts in STEM education.

Q. What was the last book you enjoyed? What was the last art exhibit that you attended?

Brown: “Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace. Just kidding, I haven’t finished it yet. I recently read “Where’d You Go Bernadette” by Maria Semple. My husband, Brian, is on the board of Terrain. The last art show I went to was the Preview Night at the Jensen-Byrd Building.

McMorris Rodgers: We really enjoyed the MAC’s Lego exhibit. I probably won’t need to explain why to anyone who has young children! More recently the Titanic exhibit was also very well done. The curators did a great job of bringing the Titanic disaster to life and making the tragedy very human, in particular by giving everyone a passenger “ticket” at the start, and letting us discover the fate of that same passenger at the end of the visit.

My favorite book is “Pilgrim’s Progress,” by John Bunyan. It’s remarkable that a book first published in 1678 has never been out of print. It’s a beautiful, powerful religious allegory following the journey of one man, and later the journey of his family, toward Heaven. It has so many great spiritual lessons, as well as charm and humor. One point that emerges strongly is the value of family life and community while traveling that journey. The road is best traveled together.

Tod Marshall is a Gonzaga University professor and the former poet laureate of Washington.

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