There comes a moment in the life of every major constituency when a group of important-looking people in expensive-looking suits will descend upon your neighborhood, school or community center and whisper a series of sweet, vague nothings into the nearest live microphone.
That moment is called election time, and the people in the expensive-looking suits are politicians. And the sweet nothings? Those are campaign promises.
Thanks to a welcome new project launched by the Arts Services Initiative, a cultural advocacy group headed by former Erie County Legislature staffer Tod Kniazuk, the various constituencies being pandered to this election season now include the vast and variegated cultural community of Western New York.
Last month, ASI sent out surveys about the role of arts and culture to candidates for Buffalo mayor and comptroller, Erie County Legislature and the Niagara Falls City Council. Though many of the responses are as vague, noncommittal and sometimes poetically absurd as you might expect, they demonstrate a growing awareness of the importance of culture to the region’s identity and economic vitality. The completed surveys are available on ASI’s website, asiwny.org. Even if it’s just lip service, the chorus of responses in ASI’s surveys sounds like music to a cultural community long starved for the attention and backing it deserves from local elected officials. The surveys contain some maddening contradictions, such as paeans to the importance of the arts and arts funding from the likes of Mayor Byron Brown, Erie County Legislature candidate Barbara Miller-Williams and to a lesser extent Kevin Hardwick, whose actions in office fall far short of their campaign rhetoric about the importance of culture to the region.
As frustrating as these paeans to the arts from politicians who have demonstrated only a passing interest in the subject may be to those who have followed the cultural funding debacles of the past few years, they represent major progress in the political realm. A great deal of that is due to the new era of collaboration in the previously segmented cultural community, which resulted in the formation of the Arts Services Initiative in 2011. In its young life, the Arts Services Initiative has pulled off a series of impressive feats. In addition to picking up the slack of its disgraced and defunct predecessor, the Arts Council of Buffalo and Erie County, ASI and Kniazuk have taken up the enormous task of proving to politicians that the voice of the region’s cultural industry is worth listening to.
The responses are a hoot to read. They range from articulate and genuine encomiums to the importance of arts and arts education to blatant and borderline incomprehensible pandering. Consider this baffling reply to a question about the role of arts and culture in the community from Miller-Williams, who happily collaborated with anti-arts former Erie County Executive Chris Collins in 2010 and 2011 to slash arts funding to all but 10 groups:
“The role of arts and culture, as a community asset, is critical in determining specific ways to strengthen cultural values while preserving heritage and history throughout our diverse neighborhoods.”
Even if you disagree with some politicians’ continued resistance to the proven idea that public investment in culture yields high economic returns, you have to respect those candidates who avoided making promises they may have no intention of keeping. These include Erie County Legislature candidate Brian F. Burke, Niagara Falls City Council candidates Charles A. Walker, Samuel F. Fruscione and Vince Sandonato.
Out of 41 candidates who received the survey, 29 responded, Kniazuk said. This figure includes 11 of 16 incumbents and 18 of 25 challengers. The fact that all incumbent Republicans on the Erie County Legislature but Hardwick chose not to respond should speak for itself.
But there also are plenty of promising and honest responses, such as this one from Erie County Legislature candidate Elias A. Fara in response to a question about forming a new cultural funding committee: “Creating a committee means nothing if people are not passionate about making a difference.” Another response, from Erie County Legislature candidate Richard Zydel, shows some deep thinking about cultural investment: “Cultural organizations are not wards of the state,” he wrote. “They are economic development generators which turn over public funding back into the community many fold.”
In survey after survey, candidates are sending odes to the power and importance of the arts. Given the records of some of the incumbents, it’s hard to take their statements too seriously. But for the artists and organizations who have spent so long out of earshot, even hollow promises are nice to hear.