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'At the State House, the arts prevailed'

Last modified: 3/30/2012 12:00:00 AM
On Wednesday, the New Hampshire House resoundingly turned back two efforts that would have turned New Hampshire into one of the most art-unfriendly states in the union.

One bill, HB 1285, would have repealed the Percent for Art (State Art Fund) program - which sets aside money in major state construction projects for artwork in state-owned buildings. By a vote of 210-76 it was sent to interim study. The other bill, HB 1274, as originally written, would have eliminated the Department of Cultural Resources. All of that language was stripped away at the committee level and the wholly revised version passed 253-40.

Here's what makes those tallies so stunning. When the bills were introduced back in January, both had an excellent chance of passing. That they didn't win approval - by wide margins - is proof of two things:

1. The majority of lawmakers, especially in committee, will listen to a well-reasoned argument.

2. The ability to get information to legislators, particularly on an issue like arts funding, requires a combination of strong grassroots mobilization and quiet, one-on-one conversations between lawmakers and people they trust who know the issues.

Other groups might be familiar with this turn of events. But for the New Hampshire arts community, this feels like a watershed moment. On both sides of the aisles, legislators came to the point where they talked about the value of art and agreed, to varying degrees, that there is in fact a role for government funding of the arts.

The kickoff moment for this turnaround came on Jan. 20 when 110 people attended the first public hearings to discuss these bills. Our headliners included leaders and letters from the chambers of commerce of Nashua, Concord, Manchester and Dover. We had Portsmouth and Rochester business leaders and statewide craftspeople who make their living from their art and pump millions of dollars each year into the state's economy. We had teachers and economic development officials.

For the press, this event was invisible. A hearing on the environment that drew about 30 people the same week got broad coverage while the one on arts policy received not one line.

But that was fine, because the lawmakers in our hearing room had a chance to see something that was not so obvious before - the range of people in business and politics who value art is broader than we might have thought. They heard, in very concrete terms, what art and culture do for the state's economy and quality of life.

The lawmakers raised very good questions about the efficiency with which state dollars were spent and the extent to which local residents shaped that spending. We responded with detailed answers.

Following up on the hearing, we gave them information packets that unpacked the controlling laws and procedures and provided specific examples of art projects with the dollars invested and the payback that emerged on the other side.

At the end of the day, all of us, the lawmakers, the arts advocates and the business community, had a discussion that was driven not by ideology, which is rigid, but by values, which apply our sense of what's important to the details of the world we want to build around us. That in itself is a creative process and it took place where it ought to take place - in our State House. New Hampshire proved that not only is art good for us, but if we step up to the task, talking about art can be good too.

(Connie Rosemont of Concord is president of New Hampshire Citizens for the Arts, a nonpartisan group that advocates for public funding for the arts.)


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