Last Sunday afternoon, as dozens of people milled about in the atrium of the Burchfield Penney Art Center, Jax Deluca smiled at the crowd from behind a pair of folding tables stacked with fliers, programs and DVDs.
As visitors filed past the tables on their way into the auditorium for a screening of work from the Buffalo Youth Media Institute, Deluca -- a Buffalo artist and programming director for Squeaky Wheel Media Arts Center -- politely called the attention of visitors to one sheet in particular. It was a form letter, with blank spaces for the names of addressee and sender, that pointedly criticized Gov. David A. Paterson's proposed 40 percent cut to the local assistance budget of the New York State Council on the Arts.
"If the proposed cut is approved," the letter read, "organizations like Squeaky Wheel and the Buffalo Youth Media Institute will no longer be able to serve our community"
It went on: "Why slash an economic engine in our communities across the state?"
This was a calculated bit of political advocacy by Squeaky Wheel, which knew well the emotional power of the program it was about to present and banked on the fact that it would move people to complain -- and complain fervently -- about the prospect of reducing funding for a program as obviously effective and vital as its Youth Media Institute.
The seven short films in this year's version of the program were each emotionally poignant and deeply informative, often in surprisingly sophisticated ways. Each of the films were produced, shot and edited by local high school students with the guidance of Squeaky Wheel staff, including program director Ruth Goldberg and executive director Dorothea Braemer.
Canisius High School grad Drew Weymouth's film, "Anna Klapakis: Making a Difference," a portrait of a teacher at Bennett High School and one of her students, Louis Walton (a 21-year-old with Down syndrome), drew the biggest cheers of the afternoon. It weaved together thoughtfully conducted interviews with carefully chosen B-roll to construct a powerful paean to the undersung work of teachers and to the undeterred sprit of students with disabilities.
City Honors High School student Lydia Fisher's film, "Kevin Smith: The Truth," was a quietly stunning look into the effects of alcoholism through the words of her subject, a former alcoholic turned substance abuse counselor. Fisher juxtaposed heartbreaking scenes of dilapidated and abandoned houses around Buffalo with old-school educational films about alcoholism to create a sense of disjunction between the clinical understanding of the disease and its effects on urban communities. The piece demonstrated a startling fluency in the language of film, underpinned by a whole network of sophisticated subtext.
A film by Cleveland Hill High School students Colin Miller and Matt Rusinski featured an unadorned narrative delivered by World War II survivor Nina Wesolowski, a Ukrainian woman who worked in a labor camp before emigrating to the United States after the war. Another, by Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts freshman Daniel Henderson, chronicled the work of theater director and teacher Lorna C. Hill, while a film by Elias Ayoub (who is home-schooled) looked into the local restaurateurs who created the successful Pizza Plant. Local artists Scott Bye and Larry Griffis III were featured in separate short films by Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts student William Miller and Ben Almeter of St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute, respectively.
When the program was complete, one of the film's subjects, Pizza Plant co-owner Bob Syracuse, could barely contain his praise for the students' work.
"This is the reason you fund the arts," said Syracuse, whose genuine enthusiasm made it clear he was not simply out to promote his restaurant business.
Squeaky Wheel's efforts to bring arts and media education to students mirrors similar efforts from mainstream arts organizations like the Castellani Art Museum, CEPA Gallery, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo Arts Studio and dozens of other arts outfits with strong educational arms. By teaching students literacy in media and the arts, these groups help to plug a hole in the public education system created by a widespread misperception that arts education is somehow frivolous and expendable.
At a time when agencies across the state are facing budget cuts, complaints about lack of funds are understandably rising from every affected sector, especially those with dedicated lobbyists. But to cut arts funding to such an extent -- if passed, the proposed cut would be the largest single cut to any state agency -- seems patently unwise when you consider the formidable economic impact of the arts.
"The arts bring $25 billion worth of revenue into the state," said Danny Simmons, interim chair of the New York State Council on the Arts. "It's one of the few sectors that are on the chopping block that are actually an economic engine. In the long run, cutting the arts is sinking the economy further into debt. It's a double-edged sword."
Fond as our state's politicians are of shooting themselves in the foot, Simmons' point bears repeating. The arts, including arts education programs like the Buffalo Youth Media Institute, only help to improve the state's dismal economic picture. Let's not make a bad situation worse.