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‘The arts are critical to a high quality of life,’ Ellison tells crowd at Weinstein

“I think one of the great tragedies of our time is that art instruction in our schools has been declining as their budgets have gotten cut back,” Rep. Keith Ellison said.

The Weinstein Gallery sits across the street from a mom-and-pop grocery and hardware store, and down the street from a family-owned coffee shop in South Minneapolis. Dog-walkers regularly press their noses up to the glistening picture windows to take in the photography, sculptures and paintings, perhaps not knowing that they’re taking in a world-class gallery that has featured the works of Robert Mapplethorpe, Chuck Close, Alec Soth, and many others over the past 16 years.

Monday evening at the Weinstein, August Sander’s haunting1928 photograph “The Bricklayer” looked down from a wall at a pile of Wellstonian-green campaign posters and buttons that read, “Ellison For Congress: Everybody Counts, Everybody Matters.” The occasion was an “Ellison For The Arts” fundraiser, in which Rep. Keith Ellison and a hundred or so artists and arts advocates gathered to raise money and talk about the importance of keeping public funding for the arts on the front burner in uninspired economic and political times.

“We are one of only two galleries in the country,” said gallery owner Martin Weinstein, “to represent the estate of Robert Mapplethorpe, who was at the center of the Cincinnati fiasco, when the director of the museum was arrested on obscenity charges and Jesse Helms used that as an excuse to cut art funding across the board. That’s an example of intolerance, and we have a candidate here, Keith Ellison, who if nothing else stands for tolerance.”

Weinstein’s knows his arts-chilling history well, which is why Monday’s confab at the Weinstein felt like something of a preemptive strike on desperate politicians who, in down economic times and an election year, might see fit to revive the war on arts funding as a moral issue – because arts aren’t a necessity.

‘It defines who we are’

“They’re just wrong,” said Ellison, as his 22-year-old artist son Jeremiah milled about with artists Maria Isa, Ta-coumba T. Aiken, and others. “When you think about America, what do you think about? You think about music, like ‘America, the Beautiful.’ You think about Norman Rockwell paintings. You think about the literature of James Baldwin. I mean, it defines who we are. Art helps cut through all of the confusion of life and helps present the bare essentials.

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“The times we live in now are tough, but there’s somebody rappin’ about ’em, or singing about ’em, or writing about ’em, or painting about ’em, and helping us understand the complexity of the world we live in. And maybe as a result we’re disturbed, or more at peace, or inspired.

“I don’t have any artistic talent, I’m just a lover of the arts. But I remember reading ‘Macbeth,’  and if ever there was a piece of art about the ruthlessness of unbridled political ambition, it’s that play. And that speaks to the times we live in: ‘Macbeth’ could’ve been written today.”

Government funding for the arts, primarily through the National Endowment for the Arts, (NEA) has declined steadily over the last 10 years. Similarly, public-school arts programs are regularly on the ropes, leaving teachers and would-be art students to fend for themselves for curriculum, materials, and time.

“The arts are critical to a high quality of life, and I think one of the great tragedies of our time is that art instruction in our schools has been declining as their budgets have gotten cut back,” said Ellison. “We need to have art teachers.”

Maria Isa on the value of arts training

“Today I just taught 80 kids in a humanities arts course,” said Maria Isa, “and it’s one of the only programs that’s available in St. Paul that’s being funded for artists to come and interact with kids who are underprivileged, and whose advantage with learning is through the arts. I know I was a child that was educated through the arts, and I wouldn’t be where I am today as an artist if I didn’t have that training through after-school programs.”

As Isa spoke, party-goers lingered by the work of Mapplethorpe, Karen Finlay, John Snyder, Helmut Newton, Annie Leibovitz, and more. Nudes and dogs shared wall space with urban panoramas. A huge color photo of a pristinely manicured cul-de-sac turnaround dominated the front room, which also featured two chalk- and cigarette-wielding mannequins making plans over a foosball table.

“If you want a community that has any kind of spirit, then you need art,” said Ta-coumba T. Aiken.

“And if you spell the word heart, ‘art’ is in there. And as long as you have heart, you’ll have art. And why Keith Ellison? He’s got heart.”

He’s also got an optimistic streak, along with a message for all concerned:

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‘The arts community must protect its own interests’

“I feel good about where we could go with arts funding, but let me tell you this: The arts community must protect its own interests. If all you want to do is sing and dance and paint, that won’t be good enough. You’ve got to be part of a political movement that would make sure that we do have public support for the arts.

“So part of what I’m doing is calling on people from the arts community to be active, to be involved. Because if you just want to do your art, and you don’t want to be involved in the politics of it, you could find yourself in a bad situation.”