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ON THE SCENE: Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, arts advocate

May 24, 2019
By NAJ WIKOFF , Lake Placid News

As a member of the House Armed Services Committee and Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, one often thinks of Congresswoman Elise Stefanik in terms of military readiness and northern border issues as well as her concerns for agriculture and the environment in the district.

But no less is her concern for education, as underscored by her membership on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, and advocacy on behalf of the arts as exemplified by her co-chairing the Congressional STEAM Caucus. Added to that, she recently took on co-chairing the Congressional Arts Caucus.

One usually thinks of cities like New York, Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles as centers of culture as they all have significant museums, performing art centers and a robust theatrical scene. But rural America is often no slouch; its assets may be smaller, but the per capita attendance is usually higher than the urban centers. Consider, as an example, when the Lake Placid Center for the Arts fills all its seats, the number of people attending is equivalent to nearly 15% of the population of Lake Placid. A packed house at the Recovery Lounge in Upper Jay is even more as that adds up to nearly one quarter the population of that hamlet.

Article Photos

From left are Holly Wolff, president of Pendragon Theatre; Stephen Longmire, president the Upper Jay Art Center (in back); David Kahn, executive director, of Adirondack Experience, the Museum on Blue Mountain Lake; Rep. Elise Stefanik; Naj Wikoff, co-founder of Creative Healing Connections; Bill McColgan, president and CEO of Mountain Lake PBS; and James Lemons, executive director of the Lake Placid Center for the Arts. These arts leaders met with the congresswoman during a recent trip to Washington, D.C.
(Photo provided)

With that in mind, Stefanik, a Republican who represents the 21st Congressional District, stepped up this winter to serve as co-chair of the Congressional Arts Caucus. It is a position often held by members of Congress who represent urban areas, such as the late Congresswoman Louise Slaughter of western New York, which underscores the vitality of the arts in Stefanik's district and signals the importance of the arts in rural America. Also, her support for the arts is another example of her independence on specific core issues as President Donald Trump proposed zero funding the arts during his first two years in office.

Stefanik's first public stance on behalf of the arts on the national stage took place in May 2015, then a member of the Committee on Education and the Workforce, when she announced she would co-chair the Congressional STEAM Caucus alongside Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici (D-Oregon), a position she retains to this day.

"I've been a supporter of the arts going back to when I was a kid," Stefanik said in a recent meeting with Adirondack arts and cultural institution leaders at her office in Washington, D.C. "The arts were a very important part of my childhood. My mom is the one who initially encouraged my participation in the arts. I was exposed to the visual arts, theater, music, literature and film at a young age. My mom encouraged that aspect of my education. I did dance classes from the age of 4 through college. The arts have been a vital part of my life and education."

That passion for the arts in education coming out of her own life experience led Stefanik as a member of the House Education and Workforce and co-chair of the Congressional STEAM Caucus to successfully push for, as an example, the J-12 reauthorization that expanded STEM (Science Technology, Engineering, and Math) to STEAM (to include arts and design).

In January of this year, at the invitation of Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), the Democratic co-chair, Stefanik agreed to take on co-chairing the Congressional Arts Caucus, the leading congressional advocacy group on behalf of the arts and humanities.

"I believe that my co-chairing STEAM along with the Congressional Arts Caucus is a great fit," said Stefanik. "I am a strong believer in the importance of the arts to the economic health of communities. We've seen that in many of the revitalization efforts in towns and villages throughout the Adirondacks and throughout my district. The arts are a personal area of interest, and it's been a great opportunity in the policy space to lead on.

"I've been a consistent supporter of the National Endowment for the Arts. I've been an independent voice for my party when it comes to funding for the arts. I've been very consistent. I know, as one of the leaders in both parties when it comes to advocating on behalf of the arts and humanities, why it's helpful to the overall economy when we make investments in the arts."

Stefanik believes that her coming from a rural district underscores how vital the arts are to rural communities. She provided as an example: The Hyde Collection's 2013 exhibit of works created by artist Georgia O'Keeffe when she spent time at Lake George - an exhibition that attracted historic numbers of people from as far away as Montreal and New York.

"The fact that the Hyde was able to attract tourists to Glens Falls had huge positive consequences for, as an example, downtown restaurants and retail," said Stefanik. "I've heard from local business owners that they loved seeing people with the Hyde Collection lapel buttons as they could tell how it increased the overall local economy. That's one of many, many examples I could give."

Stefanik praised the importance of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute of Museum and Library Services and their support for such local assets as Fort Ticonderoga and Adirondack Experience.

"When I think of the arts broadly, I also think of our nation's history and how we tell those stories," said Stefanik. "We have such a vibrancy throughout the district when considering the Battle of Saratoga, Fort Ticonderoga, and the type and number of visitors we are able to attract to those historical sites along with the arts institutions that often partner with them."

"I am thrilled that Congresswoman Stefanik has agreed to co-chair the Congressional Arts Caucus," said David Kahn, executive director of Adirondack Experience, the Museum on Blue Mountain Lake. "Tourism is the lifeblood of the Adirondacks, and the arts and cultural organizations such as Adirondack Experience are a major draw for the region. The congresswoman's leadership in the Arts Caucus will help guarantee ongoing federal support for institutions such as ours."

Passionate though she is on the arts' value in strengthening the economy and education, Stefanik is equally bullish on the value of the arts in improving the health and well-being of all Americans, be it used in support of medical outcomes, to reduce the experience of pain or help veterans rebuild their lives. Stefanik praised initiatives such as Creative Healing Connections' retreats for women and River Hospital's PTSD program for veterans.

"We have examples of very effective uses of the arts to foster healing in the district," said Stefanik. "One of the key aspects of River Hospital's program is art therapy. I've had an opportunity to visit with soldiers who participated, and they said it saved their lives often talking about the arts as an important part of the program."

Stefanik concluded her remarks by saying how she uses examples of the value of the arts in her district to make a case for supporting the arts to her colleagues and others on the national stage.

"It's very effective for me to be able to hear those stories personally. The work that I do in advocating for the arts is closely tied to individual constituents that I've met with throughout the district. Their stories are compelling."

Agencies across the district deeply appreciate Stefanik's advocacy for the arts.

"The arts have a positive impact on communities like ours," said Holly Wolff, president of Pendragon Theatre. "I'm pleased that Stefanik is taking that knowledge and utilizing it nationally."



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