More than 150 state and community leaders and members of the local arts community celebrated the 50th anniversary of the National Endowment for the Arts with a welcoming ceremony Friday afternoon for Jane Chu, NEA’s chairwoman, at the Newport Art Museum.
Chu told the audience it was fitting to celebrate the NEA’s birthday in this city that was the home of former U.S. Sen. Claiborne Pell, who in 1965 was the sponsor of legislation that created the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
“This is a state where the arts are woven into the fabric of communities,” she said. “Rhode Island residents exceed the national average when it comes to active participation in the arts.”
Chu cited statistics showing that Rhode Island residents attend art shows, museums, concerts, theater and other arts activities more often than residents in most other states.
“Rhode Island is a model for the way the arts are integrated into the economy,” she said.
State Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed, D-Newport, backed that assessment.
“There are over 3,000 arts-related businesses in Rhode Island that employ over 13,000 workers,” she said, citing data from Americans for the Arts.
Chu talked about a new NEA initiative called “Creativity Connects,” which will lay out ways to strengthen the arts sector. The initiative will focus on ways the arts can connect with non-arts sectors, she said. Participants will examine ways in which the arts sector, government, for-profit sector and philanthropic community can collaborate to support the arts, expand the nation’s creative economy, and enhance the contributions of creative workers to society, she said.
“During the past 50 years, NEA has awarded more than 146,000 grants totaling more than $5 billion,” Chu said. That national investment in the arts has leveraged more than seven times that amount by other private and public entities, she said.
Before touring the Newport Art Museum, Chu toured the Newport Opera House, where there is a multimillion dollar project underway to create a new performing arts center. There, she viewed a dance performance by the Island Moving Co.
Clay Pell talked about his grandfather’s accomplishments in 1965, a time “when Congress was willing to invest in our society.” That, he said, contrasts with the gridlock that now often characterizes Washington, D.C.
The late Sen. Pell served six terms in the Senate from 1961 to 1997, making him the longest-serving U.S. senator in the state’s history. He is best known for the creation of the Pell Grants, which provide federal financial aid to college students.
“What my grandfather did was to select a few issues on which in his own way he made a big difference,” Clay Pell said.
“I hope we can give you a sense of hope that things can get done,” he told Chu, who is based in Washington. “We have people here who really believe in what you are doing.”
Besides the Newport Art Museum, the Arts & Cultural Alliance of Newport County and the State Council for the Arts hosted Friday’s events. Randy Rosenbaum, the state council’s executive director, was the master of ceremonies for Friday’s events.
Before coming to Newport, Chu toured The Steel Yard in Providence on Friday morning, where she learned about its weld-to-work job training program and public art program. She also met with iron artists in residence and visited teaching studios where local craftspeople teach ceramics, jewelry, welding and blacksmithing to youth and adults in educational workshops.
U.S. Sens. Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse, both D-R.I., and Reps. David N. Cicilline and James Langevin, both D-R.I., as well as Newport Mayor Jeanne-Marie Napolitano, all spoke at the Newport Art Museum.
“With so much violence going on in the world, we need the arts more than ever,” Langevin said. “The arts unite us.”
Skip Healy played the flute and Kevin Doyle did an Irish step dance in the gallery of the museum during the ceremony. Both artists, as well as many others throughout the state, have received arts grants during their careers, Rosenbaum said.
The impact of such grants “is not just on the economy, but to the human spirit,” Reed said.
“For many years I have heard people say, ‘What a difference the NEA has made on our lives,’” Rosenbaum said to applause from the audience. “That is so true.”
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