Rep. Stefanik is an arts advocate

U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, front center, poses with, from left, Holly Wolff, president of Pendragon Theatre in Saranac Lake; Stephen Longmire, president of the Upper Jay Art Center; David Kahn, executive director of Adirondack Experience, the Museum at Blue Mountain Lake; Naj Wikoff of Keene Valley, 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, during a 2018 visit to her congressional office in Washington. (Photo provided by Naj Wikoff)

The arts have long struggled to develop a richly deserved recognition for their importance in the education of our youth, improving the quality of life for people of all ages and life experiences, and as a vital economic engine for our region through attracting visitors and creating jobs.

In recent years, there are signs of change are in the air, such as James Lemons, executive director of the Lake Placid Center for the Arts being elected president of the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism’s Board of Directors, Pendragon receiving a significant investment toward creating a new anchor theater in the center of Saranac Lake, the creation of the Wild Center and upgrades to Adirondack Experience, the Recovery Lounge packing in audiences in Upper Jay, and the Lake Placid Film Forum becoming a film festival and shifting to the fall.

Mirroring and celebrating these advancements, and similar progress throughout her district, Congresswoman Elise Stefanik recently agreed to co-chair the Congressional Arts Caucus, the lead governmental committee for increasing funding for the National Endowments of the Arts and Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, agencies that have supported a wide array of institutions in the North Country.

In doing so, Congresswoman Stefanik builds on her leadership as a founding co-chair of the STEAM Caucus alongside Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., a position she retains to this day. Further, Stefanik’s support for the arts is another example of her independence on specific core issues, as President Trump proposed zero funding the arts during his first two years in office.

“I’ve been a supporter of the arts going back to when I was a kid,” said Congresswoman Stefanik. “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 Congresswoman 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).

“I believe that my co-chairing STEAM along with the Congressional Arts Caucus is a great fit,” said Congresswoman 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 of art created by 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. Stefanik has 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 can 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 the Adirondack Experience. “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 art’s 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 to help veterans rebuild their lives. Stefanik praised such local initiatives as Creative Healing Connections’s retreats for women and River Hospital’s post-traumatic stress disorder 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.”

While Stefanik taking on this role will bring increased awareness of the importance of the arts in rural regions, and ours in particular, our opportunity is to explore new ways for creating strategic partnerships between the arts and all sectors of life and business in the Adirondacks, be it athletics, education, environmental stewardship, economic planning, healthcare, public health or improving the quality of life for our aging populations.

Federal support is vital, but so is investments on the state, county and community level, and by local businesses and individuals. The collective efforts that have brought us this far, coupled with renewed energy, can build on the positive steps taken and endorsements made.

Naj Wikoff lives in Keene Valley and is a weekly columnist for the Lake Placid News.