Chairman, the National Endowment for the Arts
(Introduction by Victoria Ann Lewis, Forum Planning Committee Chair and Director of Other Voices, Mark Taper Forum)
Thank you for your kind introduction, Victoria. It is a privilege for me to share this platform with you. Your tireless work to involve talented artists with disabilities in the performing arts is outstanding and we appreciate your leadership in developing this forum. Let’s show our appreciation.
I am happy to be with you today for this gathering. I commend the Planning Committee, the Kennedy Center and its extraordinary Education Department, Quest:Arts for Everyone (that is coordinating the Forum), and our other federal partners, the U.S. Dept. of Education, the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services and the Social Security Administration .for their hard work and substantial expertise that made this meeting possible.
This is particularly momentous for me--it is only my second speech as Chairman so I am beginning my term with you who work for accessibility in the arts. I hope it is the start of a fruitful relationship.
As I began to work on these remarks, I remembered back to the late 1950s, when my mother’s brother --- Uncle Lew --- came to live with us. Uncle Lew was blind...he had lost his sight because of a retinal detachment, and some not-very-good repair surgery. He and I shared a bedroom for a time, and I am struck today in looking back on someone I knew very well, at just how slender were Lew’s independent points of contact with the outside world, and how limited his access to the arts. A weekly braille news magazine, and books on disc played on a gray phonograph loaned by the Library of Congress. I thought of how far we have come since 1957, and how far we have to go.
The Arts Endowment holds as its guiding principle that the vast richness of America’s culture should be made available to all. This agency works hard to ensure the involvement of everyone, including individuals with disabilities, as artists, arts administrators, teachers, mentors, students, volunteers, patrons and as consumers of the arts.
Most Americans will experience disability at some time during their lifespan, either themselves or, like me, within their families. As with aging, it is an experience that touches everyone. Thus working towards a fully accessible and inclusive culture is important to all Americans.
American art is truly democracy’s calling card. Our art contains elements drawn from all the world’s cultures, and it is simultaneously uniquely American in its willingness to experiment, to share, to accommodate, and to borrow. Our art is not defined from the top down, as in hierarchical societies, but eye to eye and shoulder to shoulder... and is the proudest symbol of our egalitarian principles.
It is ironic that federal support for the arts has, in recent years, generated such free and furious debate. But this challenging debate has generated light as well as heat, and helped form the basic challenge that can help us shape the future of our National Endowment.
Does America want an arts agency that sees and serves America as it is? And, if we are to be that kind of agency --- as most Americans want us to be --- then how can we reflect every element of our diverse and dynamic democracy? This question must remain before us as we end the negative debate about what the Endowment should not do, and begin the positive debate about what the Endowment should do.
As we plan for the future, our Arts Endowment must continue to do what it does best: foster excellence, diversity, and vitality in the arts. That means preserving America’s unique cultural heritage for future generations. It also means encouraging creativity and artistic inspiration by recognizing and supporting America’s developing artists; including, of course, artists with disabilities. The individual artist is the cornerstone of American creativity; the Endowment must find a way to once again support our nation’s artists. And, we must keep our arts organizations strong.
We must insure that the Endowment’s funding and leadership strategies serve an aesthetically, economically, culturally, and racially-diverse universe of artists and citizens.
We must advance President Clinton’s goal of health coverage for all Americans, addressing the health concerns of artists, and disseminating relevant information to the field. This includes the Endowment’s work with the Actors’ Fund of America to develop a national database of health insurance for artists.
We must help the arts advance the concerns of our communities...from design and celebration to youth-at-risk, and through arts initiatives in non-traditional venues like long-term care facilities, substance abuse treatment centers, correctional facilities and hospitals. It is in these settings that the arts can become a powerful tool to educate and enhance the quality of life.
We must encourage and suppport lifelong learning in the arts, from kindergarten through grade twelve and through a lifetime of learning as well.
We must broaden access to the arts for all Americans. This means geographical reach, and the use of advanced technologies --- like audio description, captioning, and universal design, to make cultural activities fully accessible to citizens with disabilities.
Certainly, the enactment of federal laws continues to have a substantial impact on cultural organizations to make their activities accessible. The National Endowment for the Arts was the third federal agency to issue its proposed Section 504 compliance regulations in April 1978, which became effective in May 1979. And the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act plays an essential role as it reaches beyond government to involve the private sector.
This interagency effort is one of many partnerships that the Endowment has developed over the years with other Federal agencies and cultural groups to work together in accomplishing our common goals. For example, the Endowment’s AccessAbility Office developed an interagency agreements in 1995 with the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Administration on Aging and the White House Conference on Aging to convene a mini-conference on "the Arts, the Humanities and Older Americans." The intent of the agreement has some similarity to the goals of this Forum-- that was " to make the best cultural opportunities more responsive and available to older adults; and to increase the sensitivity of professionals and practitioners in the aging field to the potential of cultural programs by, for and with older adults." The resulting recommendations were channeled to the White House Conference and--for the first time-- the arts and humanities were on the White House agenda as a quality of life issue.
Many of its recommendations have been implemented including: the creation of a national database on "The Arts Involving Older Adults" that was produced with the National Council on Aging; and the education and promotion of Universal Design, which is one of the Endowment’s Leadership Initiatives.
Another issue that was raised during the deliberations continues to be unresolved, and it is being addressed by this body—that is, the disturbing number of older artists and artists with disabilities who are rich in talent but require some public assistance. They include a wide variety of artists including folk artists, many of whom are "living archives" of America’s cultural heritage.
Through funded intergenerational learning and recognition programs, these artists play a key role in passing on their wisdom and skills to young people. Unfortunately, fear of losing their lifeline to essential medical and support benefits prevent their participation Many artists forego accepting modest government grants and apprenticeships for fear of losing their Social Security, SSI, disability income, Medicaid, or other benefits. Some artists who accepted funds from the Endowment or their state arts agencies lost their benefits for months or even years before being reinstated. Certainly, there must be a way that all of us can work together to enable artists to accept such support and still maintain their much needed benefits.
As we approach the Millennium, inclusion must be ever present in our vision. We at the Arts Endowment believe that it is important to listen to and celebrate the diverse voices of America. Because of federal legislation, great strides in architectural and programmatic access has been made since the 1970's. Americans with disabilities for the first time in history have the opportunity to tell their own stories in song, dance, the visual arts, theater and film. Through the lessons gleaned from the challenges of everyday life, disabled Americans have an important contribution to make to our Democracy. You teach us about the value of interdependence along with independence; of self-determination and of connection and community. You challenge America’s sense of ease and entitlement, and demand that our nation open the doors of our training and cultural institutions so that you may contribute your vision and craft to our country’s journey through the rich and complex landscape of the 21st century.
In the early twentieth century, W.E.B. DuBois called upon black artists to celebrate their own rich heritage, to add their voices to America’s scene, to create art that was "About us, By us, Near us," as DuBois put it. Disabled artists today echo his words when they ask for cultural and social programming that incorporates and expresses their thoughts and experiences. This extraordinary forum is a testimony to that spirit of inclusiveness and empowerment. Disabled and nondisabled; social scientists and wheelchair-dancers; government officials and grassroots organizations--we all join forces here today to develop plans and programs that will insure that ALL Americans contribute to the art and civic life of our wonderful country.