A Dream for a North Country Endowment for the Arts

Rande Richardson

“Art is a nation’s most precious heritage. For it is in our works of art that we reveal to ourselves, and to others, the inner vision which guides us as a nation. And where there is no vision, the people perish.” — Lyndon B. Johnson  

I am not alone in the way the arts have contributed to the quality of my life. I was blessed to have early influences from parents, teachers and other adults that fostered an exposure to and appreciation for the arts. Some of my best childhood memories occurred in an environment where arts were seen as an integral part of developing the mind, heart and soul. There was an early understanding of the relationship between the knowledge of and appreciation for the arts and the education of the whole person and the advancement of society.  

    Consider all of the nonprofit organizations that deliver music, dance, theater, visual arts, film, literature and folk arts to north country residents. Access to the many benefits of arts programs would not be possible without a commitment from both public and private sources. Nearly all of the region’s arts organizations and museums rely on this hybrid funding approach. Most would agree that the role of the arts in education, in civic life, in the economy, and art for the sake of art, is worthy of our continued and sustained investment. Arts and culture contribute more than $760 billion to the national economy and employ nearly five million people with earnings of more than $370 billion.  

    Several years ago, I was fortunate to have served as a panelist for the New York State Council on the Arts. That experience opened my eyes even wider to the many diverse forms of artistic expression and the breadth and depth of ways they are offered. In my time at the Community Foundation, I have often literally had a front row seat to the way the arts in all forms reaches deep inside the core of what makes us human. Many reading this column have similarly experienced the way the arts touch a different part of who you are.  

    I believe gifts given to the Community Foundation over the past 90 years were made to invest not only in basic human needs but also enrichment of life in our region. Over the past decade, requests in support of the arts have far exceeded available resources. Most grants to arts activities in the tri-county area are made from our unrestricted funds. Our largest endowments directed for the arts are restricted to supporting live orchestral music performed in the Watertown area and classical music in Clayton. Some donors have made generous future provisions through their legacy planning to establish or build Community Foundation endowments to benefit specific arts organizations in the region in perpetuity. This is will be transformational as arts organizations will require greater commitment of resources to survive.  

    In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1965. The act called for the creation of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities as separate, independent agencies. That foresight has helped ensure the survival and accessibility of the arts. One of the reasons I advocate for Watertown’s annual Concert in the Park is that there is no charge for admission. There is no barrier to experiencing the joy of the amazing gift of live orchestral music. However, keeping access affordable does not come without a cost.  

    I am fortunate to be part of very personal and meaningful conversations with those who want to leave a legacy. If there is an indication that the arts have touched them, I don’t hesitate to make the case for a north country endowment for the arts. While I am grateful for generous expressions of support for specific arts organizations, I also recognize the importance of a permanent, ongoing resource for the arts themselves, in all forms in all places, for all people, forever. Just as it has nationally, a regional endowment for the arts would help ensure the arts will always remain a priority and help leverage additional sources of funding.  

    There are programs, projects and initiatives as-yet unknown that will only happen with a shared commitment to the arts. We need an enduring resource that promotes and strengthens the creative capacity of communities across Northern New York by providing diverse opportunities for arts participation — a defining strength of our shared experience. Think for a moment about that one song that touches the deepest part of your soul. I am confident that in my lifetime, someone will leave a legacy that will forever be that song.