Arts EducationMay 05, 2011


Today, ArtPride presented the second annual Arts Day in Trenton, a celebration of the year’s statewide acheivements in the arts, coupled with ArtPride’s annual meeting and ancillary events. Please check out the page for the full listing; it’s an incredible series of events and open to the public, and I look forward to shaking your hand and chatting with you at it at the 2012 event next spring, dear reader.

It’s a day that means a lot to me, and I’ve spent a curious amount of time today trying to express exactly why. I’ve now started and re-started this entry four times; I think there’s weight in those moments, when there’s something on the tip of your tongue that feels both mighty and amorphous in its expression. You have to give those thoughts time to work themselves out. So, here it goes.

The highlight of the day’s events for me was hearing Ben Cameron speak; he currently serves as Program Director for the Arts at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. I’ve been a fan of his since his days at Theatre Communications Group–he’s a shining example of what a passionate and exacting advocate for the arts could accomplish. His speech today shared much in the way of tone and energy with his recent TEDTalk, which is embedded below. Spend a few minutes and give it a watch, and I’ll meet you back here:

I love this. When he gets going, I feel all the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and that amazing sense of acceleration in my chest, like when you know you’re hearing something true and vibrant and vital hit the air. Hearing Ben Cameron talk is probably as close as we get in reality to those wonderful moments in Aaron Sorkin’s West Wing, when you felt like idealism had a place in this world and powerful words and a flawless performance mix to stop you in your tracks.

Idealism is a concept that I find myself turning over in my head a lot, thinking of today. And one of Cameron’s greatest strengths is his integrity and his honesty–a cornerstone of his words and his message is that times right now are absolutely trying. Industry-wide across the arts, box office receipts are down and there are sentiments and ruminations of fear everywhere. One of the reasons I admire him so, however, is how he wields optimism against this; he truly believes in the power of change, and ingenuity. He doesn’t see this period of tumult as the death of American arts, but a precipice, and on the other side of that is a time of growth and renewal.

The above video spells out his case in pretty wonderful fashion; you can also click here for a few words from our erstwhile Twitter Team’s summary of the day’s speeches and events, including some wonderful remarks from Cameron himself. It takes a pretty amazing spirit to name-check Snooki, Wayne Gretzky and Abraham Lincoln in the same speech and somehow move a room full of arts managers to their feet. His gifts are incredible.

All of this summary, however, leads to something sort of personal. I’ve spent my entire adult life, from 18 on, working in the arts. From my first job working on the events staff at Grounds for Sculpture, onto managing Princeton University’s summer theater and earning a Masters degree before running off to West Virginia and Virginia to run theaters and eventually return to work in the arts in NJ again–the last 11 years have been a wondrous series of adventures in being part of incredible artistic experiences.

That’s all prelude, of course–at the end of today’s presentation (I’m almost tempted to call it a sermon, for the rejuvenation and sense of power it provided), Cameron took questions from the audience. Madison’s Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey had sent a delegation to Arts Day of over ten people, in an incredible show of support. One of their young staff members, Marketing Associate Joe Geinert raised his hand and asked a straightforward and courageous question:

Why do we have jobs in the arts?

It sort of stopped me in my tracks, at the forthrightness of it. Joe went on to outline the temptations of considering the arts as a volunteer prospect only, with a potentially lucrative career in another industry allowing for an individual to “moonlight” as an arts lover by night, with the prospects of supporting ourselves with a living wage in this industry as an increasingly precarious prospect.

What Ben Cameron said in response was smart, and witty, and equally forthright–touching on the power of passions, and the dangerously-observed concept of “trust fund babies,” and  the strengths and choices of the people who keep this industry running, and the talents of the people in the room with us today.

I have to confess, however, that I was less interested in Cameron’s answer than the one I saw on the faces of my colleagues as I looked around the room. I’m blessed to work in a sector powered on an engine of passion; I have co-workers who are quirky and brilliant and constantly surprising in their ingenuity and dedication. I have bosses who I’m lucky enough to call mentors and friends, whose own talents (let’s call them what they are, really: super-powers) inspire me to be better as I find my place in this field. And I have colleagues who are able to face difficulties and challenges with laughter, and storytelling, and the transformative power of art.

As Joe finished his question, I looked around the room, filled to capacity with over 120 people who’ve dedicated their lives to the power of art as an agent of change in this state. And I had my answer–we’re all here because there’s tremendous power in the stories left to tell, in the young minds to be challenged and altered by the wonders of arts education, and in the work left to do. We find strength in the art, sure. But we also find strength in each other. And you could see that and feel that, without doubt, today.

Ben Cameron, in the midst of conjuring a captivating spell on the power of the arts, said today: “Whatever else we do, we gather people together.” I believe in that. I believe in it as something to which we can aspire. And I know it’s possible, because I watched it happen today.

Arts Day 2011 was an unforgettable day; there are certainly challenges ahead. But today gave us a vital charge, in the unforgettable oration of a wonderful, vivacious individual who believes in the power of the arts.

It has the potential to be a wonderful year for the arts in New Jersey; I look forward to being a part of the joys to come.

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Jonathan Elliott
Jonathan Elliott

Culture Vultures Editor • John is an arts manager, writer, and social media omnivore. A locally-grown specimen, he’s worked for organizations up and down the eastern seaboard. He writes for the popular film and tv site Cinema Blend as a news reporter and tv commentator, is a screenwriter for the web tv series Issues and NeverLanding, and his play Forward Motion is available for purchase and production via Playscripts, Inc.