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Question & Answer: Shirley Madigan

The 2005 recipient of the Motorola Excellence in Public Service Award is Shirley Madigan. She has been the chairman of the Illinois Arts Council for more than two decades. Madigan received the Motorola award to honor "her passionate advocacy and record of achievement in the arts and human services." 

The award is co-sponsored by Motorola, NORBIC, an economic development and technical assistance organization serving manufacturing firms in Northeastern Illinois, and Illinois Issues

Madigan spoke to Barbara Ferrara, interim executive director of the Center for State Policy and Leadership of the University of Illinois at Springfield, during a campus visit earlier this fall.

This is an edited, and excerpted, version of that conversation. 

Q. Could you tell me how you see government-funded arts changing lives in Illinois?

The arts do change children. They change adults also. Now many people will say to you, 'I don't like the arts. I don't think about them.' 

What about music? Some may like western music. Some may like the opera. Some may like pop. They may like all kinds of music. But I'm going to tell you right now: Music touches the very essence of people. It does things to people. It changes people. And that makes a difference in people's lives. The arts are reading. The arts are writing. That is art.

Government needs to be a part of funding for the arts because people need this in their lives. I think that's the very essence of who we are and that's how we find out who we are and that assists us in growing and reaching our full potential.

Is everybody an artist? I think in some way or another. But, you know what? Even if you don't perform, you can appreciate the arts and that they add to your life.

Q. Are you an artist yourself?

My voice was professionally trained. 

I used to dance. I used to teach dancing. And I did learn to play the piano, but I haven't done that for a very, very long time. I used to act. I loved it. One thing I never did that I want to do so badly — and I hope that I do it one day — I would like to paint and draw.  

Q. Do you have a working definition of public art?

It causes people to think, to use their imagination more, because it's in a public place. I also think that it's educational because people ask questions when they see public art. I think the one thing that I would say about it is that when you have public art it shows you that art is open to all people. 

If art is not open to all people, then it becomes elitist. Then it's only people who are very, very wealthy that are allowed into that society. When you see public art, it tells you that art is there for all of the people. And that is why I feel it's vitally important that government is a part of that. It says there is access for everyone to the arts. 

Q. Do you think we've succeeded in democratizing the arts in terms of artists and audiences?

No, I do not believe that we have. I believe that we have made progress.

Notice after 9/11, after the New Orleans tragedy, that it was the arts world that came forth first. We fall back during those times, and we have to remind people that it is through the arts that we are moving forward. 

Throughout the state, when all of the downtown areas were shutting down, what brought forth many of these communities, what brought them back to start moving forward again, nine times out of 10, there would be an old theater or construction of a new theater. Joliet did it. That happened in Rockford. It's happened in many cities across the state. Usually it's a theater; people, you know, start to focus on that. It starts to bring people together.

Q. It sounds as if you're saying that in tough times the arts are therapeutic, that they're almost as essential as basic needs?

You have a child that says, 'When I get home at night, I lay down on the floor when it gets dark because I'm afraid there might be a gunshot or something and maybe I'll get hit. I make my little sister lay down, too, because she might get hit.' For these children, the arts provide a safe haven. They learn through the arts that there's something they can do. 

They might draw. They might sing. They might be a part of a community organization where they go and they find within themselves something that they keep safe within themselves. For them, the arts is survival. 

We had a book that was put together. It was in the Bronzeville neighborhood in Chicago. These children told stories and they did artwork. And it was put into a book. I am telling you that these children were transformed.

Q. How do you make the case for funding the arts in tough budget times?

I believe without the arts you're not going to have a well-rounded, fully developed child meeting his or her potential. I don't think arts funding will go away, but I think that, absolutely, we're going to run into more problems. 

Q. Do you think we're going to value public art as a society and support government funding for the arts in the future?

Yes, I do. I think that it's going to continue. I think it's going to be of vital importance, especially after this crisis that we've had in New Orleans and the other states. I think we might find more community-based public art. We're going to be finding there will be more funds directed to communities to do public art because I believe this is going to be a way to give hope to people.

Q. Would community-based public art be government funded? Would it be through partnerships?

I think it would probably be partnerships. But I think we're going to find more communities coming together.

Q. So art is defined not merely in terms of the source of funding, but it's art that everyone can see, experience, share? 

The arts are someplace where all the bridges can be crossed, one place people come together.

Q. How do you decide what art is worthy of public support?

We have peer review panels. That means if the applications are dance applications, there will be people who have expertise and knowledge in the area of dance. We always talk about quality. We always say it is the quality product. It's the quality that we're looking for and trying to promote. 

Q. In your experience, is there anything unique to Illinois in terms of support for the arts?

I thought that every state had a very strong government component and that the government was just embedded in all that we do. As I began to go to meetings and travel to other states and spend time with other legislators, other governors, other mayors in other states, it was very different. We are a government-oriented society here in this state of Illinois. We look to the government; we expect government to do many things, much more than many of the other states. 

Q. How does Illinois compare  to other states in terms of the level or type of support?

We are rising. I believe we are now 18th. We used to be much closer to the middle, sometimes close to the bottom. We are at $1.54 spent per person approximately. We were under a dollar. 

I will say, in these times of crises, being able to somewhat hold our funding at a level where it needs to be has been a gigantic task. The agency has been able to move forward because of our great staff people, because of the programs that the people have told us they need. They give us that inspiration.

Also, there are times the federal government will come forth and have new monies. Well, thank God it happens.

We had a beautiful program not too long ago. It was the Mississippi River Project. It had to be in collaboration with other states, and it turned out to be one of the best projects. It was wonderful. 

I happen to think the state of Illinois is the best in the country. I think the staff is the best staff in the country. I think our programs are the best. Nine times out of 10, when we have a program, other states wish they could use our programs as a format for the programs they want to start. 

In the beginning, some staff would say, 'Well they're going to take our program.' No, they're going use the program and make it happen in their state. That's what we want. We're going to help more people. That has happened with many of our programs. 

And, of course, we do great programs that maybe on the federal level we don't get acknowledged for. But you need to keep moving forward to do the best job that you can. 

Q. So some of Illinois' programs have been models for other states? 

Absolutely. There have been many programs that have been models for other states, like the WTTW [PBS television] program Arts Across Illinois.

Q. Why should taxpayers fund the arts?

Taxpayers should fund the arts because that is the way we keep arts available for all people. If we don't use government funds for the arts, then only the wealthy are going to have access to the arts. I think that everybody must have an opportunity to know the arts, to have the arts around them. Because I believe that it's only through the arts that we are human.

We need to have people who are producing art that is available for all of the people. And, yes, I'm going to say it once again: We don't have the quality of life without the arts.

People say art is elite. No, it becomes elite if there's not government funding, and everybody can't be a part of it. We have to do our very best to try and include everybody. 

llinois Issues, December 2005

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