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Art for Everyone's Sake 

In my recent column about winners and losers from the annual legislative session, I deliberately left out one winner -- the arts community -- because I wanted to devote an entire column to that subject. It's one of the few areas in which our lawmakers are shining, and a lot of credit goes to a statewide grassroots lobbying effort begun 10 years ago by a local poet named Charlie Smith.

Smith came by his poetry the hard way. He used to be a high-powered, high-priced, high-octane (and most of the time, by his own admission, just "high") lobbyist in Baton Rouge. Years of full-bore politics, booze and drugs took their toll on Charlie, and he crashed hard.

When he emerged from rehab, he was selling poetry on Jackson Square. He called me once when he got arrested for "illegally" selling poetry -- a charge that a local judge wasted no time tossing on constitutional grounds. Charlie always had an knack for finding where the rubber meets the road; when he was a full-time lobbyist, his clients were the folks who built highways. Really.

In the 1990s, Charlie returned to his political calling -- minus the booze and drugs -- and this time his clients were arts organizations across the state. Louisiana now ranks 18th in the nation for state funding of the arts. It's one of the few "good" lists on which we rank in the top 20.

"In a tough year, our legislators maintained an acceptable level of funding for the arts," Smith says. "We got a total of $4.7 million for 2003-04, but this is down from a high of $5.2 million just two years ago."

Then again, in 1993, the year before Smith took up the cause, Louisiana zeroed out all state funding for the arts.

Smith knew going in that the traditional "art for art's sake" plea wouldn't work. It was about money, so money became his argument.

"Here's the situation," Smith tells lawmakers. "There are things government finances that bring in money, things that help the economy, and then there are necessary services that simply utilize funds. In the long run, education is the obvious base on which economies must be built. But we must operate in the present, and tourism, like it or not, has become our mainstay. Arts tourism is a vital and growing part of that market. Arts tourists are high-end visitors. ...

"We have 18,000 people making their living directly in the non-profit arts sector," Smith adds. "They are aided by over 90,000 volunteers and patrons. If we were one large company, we would rank among the biggest industries in Louisiana."

The arts folks now base their lobbying efforts on a three-pronged "benefits package," noting that the arts bring in more than $200 million a year in direct benefits to the economy -- $900 million with the tourism multiplier -- and they enhance education efforts as well. Students who take arts courses score higher than those who don't. Moreover, arts-related projects have helped re-vitalize communities across the state, from the Warehouse/Arts District in New Orleans to the Columbia Theater in Hammond, the Dixie in Ruston, the Princess in Winnsboro, and the Grand Opera House of the South in Crowley, to name a few.

"We've been very pleased with the Foster Administration's attention to the arts," Smith says. "Commissioner of Administration Mark Drennan has supported arts projects statewide, including necessary repairs to the CAC (Contemporary Arts Center), funding for the Ogden Museum and the new ArtWorks project on Howard Avenue -- and, of course, the D-Day Museum, which is a work of art in and of itself."

The arts have brought together disparate elements in the Legislature because the arts are now an economic issue. "We're the only state with Republican floor leaders," Smith says.

It will be interesting to see if any candidates for governor embrace the arts as part of their economic development policies. You can bet Smith and others will be watching.

click to enlarge In the 1990s, Charlie Smith returned to his political - calling as a lobbyist -- and this time his clients - were arts organizations across the state. - DONN YOUNG
  • Donn Young
  • In the 1990s, Charlie Smith returned to his political calling as a lobbyist -- and this time his clients were arts organizations across the state.
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