Candidate Questionnaire: John-Michael Parker

  1. YOUR PERSONAL CONNECTION TO THE ARTS

The pandemic has been challenging for so many in CT and in so many ways.

How have you personally benefited from the arts or creative expression in the last few months? What local arts experiences have you missed most during the shutdown?

My connection to the arts in CT spans decades and counties, and both the personal and professional. I grew up attending CT public schools, and benefitted greatly from strong arts programs in my schools and community. I went on to play music professionally with a band, Great Caesar, composed primarily of folks from CT—and it was during our 2016 national tour (which, of course, coincided with the presidential election and, as with shows over the decades, brought us into some of my favorite CT venues) that my political involvement was taken to the next level. Over the past few years I’ve supported young artists in my local high school as the Show Choir band director and Musical Pit Conductor and Music Director at Daniel Hand High School. And, in 2019, I became Executive Director of Arts for Learning CT, the state’s largest arts in education organization providing creative and cultural enrichment and learning opportunities to over 175,000 students each year—all through a roster of 100 professional teaching artists who are a part of CT’s creative sector.

I have indeed benefited from the arts and creative expression in the last few months. Many of AFLCT’s artists have been at the forefront of developing virtual creative learning opportunities—which started with a showcase we ran during an urgent artist response fundraiser back in April, through high-intensity summer learning opportunities for students in New Britain, through today’s “new normal” of distance learning being provided online to students and schools across the state. I have also, of course, missed local arts experiences, from working with my high school students in the show choir (VIBE) and the musical (Cinderella!) which was cancelled in the spring and is yet to be rescheduled. This is to say nothing, of course, of the small, local, community-building personal performance opportunities I’ve missed since the pandemic erupted. I feel very deeply connected to the arts through my personal and professional life, believe in the power of this sector, and care deeply about this community’s thriving and resilience.

3. ARTS + ECONOMIC RECOVERY

CT can’t recover without the arts. Arts and culture are key for CT’s economic recovery. Creative industries pump $9 billion into the state and account for 3.5% of CT’s total economy. Our non-profit arts organizations support 23,000 jobs, generate $800 million annually, and return $7 back in tax revenue for every $1 invested by the state.

How will you help harness the power of the arts for CT’s economic recovery?

I look at the process of harnessing the power of the arts for CT’s economic recovery through a few phases, which are circular and have already begun, and should be invested in and continued.

First, we must continue to gather data to understand the economic impact on the sector itself of COVID-19, and also the lost opportunities in our broader economy. The Arts Alliance and local arts councils have done a great job of this, in partnership with national and federal organizations—and continued surveys and gatherings will help us understand the current state of the challenge and the opportunities that arise.

Second, we must provide information and training to our arts community on how to “reopen” and re-engage in a safe and productive manner in the months ahead. Again, organizations like Shoreline Arts Alliance have done a great job of sharing information on safe reopening for venues, and institutional supporters (like community foundations and other nonprofit affinity groups) have hosted virtual gatherings for leaders and participants to share best practices. We cannot simply barge ahead and open everything back up, since health and well-being must be our primary concern. But, there is much we can do (as we’ve learned at AFLCT over the past few months) to provide creative arts experiences even during this challenging time—and we must make sure the drivers of this sector are equipped with the best possible knowledge to do so.

And, ultimately, we must continue to invest in the arts—through the non-profits who offer vital services (educational and otherwise) and significant employment to individuals and independent contractors; through economic development in this creative sector around performances, venues, and other opportunities; and through strong, broad-based economic and financial assistance to folks, given that many artists, as gig workers, are particularly at risk during this economic instability. And when we’re on the other side of the health risk of COVID-19, we must fully dive into the creative and economic opportunities of the arts, as they relate to tourism and local community development.

The sheer magnitude of the role of the arts in our state economy is reason enough to invest here; given the unique creativity, resilience, and vision of this community, there’s all the more reason to help keep artists and the arts at the center of our recovery.

3. ARTS HEAL + REBUILD

Creativity helps us process loss, fight loneliness, and create vibrant, resilient communities that attract and retain residents, businesses, and visitors.

What do you think is an important role for arts and culture to play in healing and rebuilding the social fabric of our cities and towns?

Given my professional background, I’ll start with education! At AFLCT, our mission is to inspire young people and expand their learning through the arts. Much of our educational work is connected to social and emotional learning, which is exactly about developing that social fabric of our communities. By supporting arts learning—in schools, directly; through community-based organization; and even in other private situations—we will help ensure that the generation who will feel the lasting impacts of COVID-19 the longest is well-supported with the kind of creative, introspective, and expressive outlet that the arts can provide.

Artists themselves are, of course, often at the center of many communities, and through their work and well-being, can help heal and strengthen that social fabric. Their work—be it musical, visual, written, sculptural, theatrical, or otherwise—is often focused on stories of community challenge and resilience, and their success is directly related to the success of individuals, families, and institutions who keep a community going. And so the arts and cultural community can and should be at the center of healing and rebuilding efforts.

Ultimately, it is through the arts that many of our highest ideals and aspirations are communicated, explored, and refined. The arts inspire us, and they show us a vision of how things could be, and also the struggles we face every day on the path to get there. Ensuring that the arts and artists are able to thrive throughout the COVID-19 crisis will help keep our citizens and our leaders in touch, attuned, and pointed in the right direction.

4. ARTS SUPPORT RACIAL & SOCIAL JUSTICE

The pandemic has deepened existing divides in Connecticut, particularly along the lines of race and class. The arts create shared experiences that can unite people and bridge divides to acknowledge the strength in our differences.

Do you believe the arts can help build racial and social justice in Connecticut? If so, how?

Absolutely. Looking back across the decades—as many AFLCT artists do in their programs—we see countless examples of how the arts have supported social justice and equity and catalyzed social progress and change. The times we’re living through today are, of course, no different.

Through the stories told and explored, the arts can offer a fertile space for developing, sharing, debating, and refining ideas—whether lofty ideals or specific proposals. The arts can help create the space and the context for painting the vision of what an equitable world could look like, and the challenges we’re facing along the way.

The arts can also help provide an educational opportunity to close the achievement, opportunity, and inspiration gaps we see in CT, especially for young Black, Indigenous, and People of Color students. We must remember that CT is among the wealthiest and most well-resourced states, with immense wealth and opportunity for success—yet, we are still among the most unequal, with enormous (and unconscionable) gaps in success and achievement with respect to race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. Arts programs in schools and communities have been show to powerfully support students facing these kinds of challenges, and can be a vital part of the resources and opportunities we provide to young people during their critical stages of development.

Lastly, through a vibrant and thriving artist community and creative sector, we will find the activists, advocates, and leaders who will move us toward equity and progress. Not just in the content of their artists work, but in the community-based, political, organizational efforts they inspire and lead, often behind the scenes, often towards making outsized impact.

The arts can help unite and bring us together. They can also help force the tough conversations that are needed to make progress. And they can help keep alive beauty, passion, and hope as we continue to move forward through these challenging times.

5. CT NEEDS HELP FROM THE ARTS

With 62% of artists unemployed and most arts organizations unable to reopen, the industry needs emergency support to recover and thrive. CT’s arts and culture sector has suffered an estimated $400 million in economic losses.

Will you support emergency funding to support the arts industry in Connecticut? If so, from what source and at what level?

Yes. We need to support the arts industry through emergency funding for institutions that helps them become more resilient and flexible, keeps money in the pockets of their employees and community providers and creatives, and unlocks federal funds through matching opportunities. We should protect the tourism fund, and protect the budgets of DECD and the CT Office of the Arts—investing in them through the general fund and other budget mechanisms, if necessary—and we should continue to go after funding from the NEA and the NEH to support our creative and cultural sectors. And while I don’t yet have an exact figure in terms of the level of this emergency funding, I am eager to learn from the best data and analysis (as referenced above) so that, as a legislator, I would be furthering the ideas of the folks who are most deeply connected to this issue, including artists, the organizations who support them, and the community institutions who help fund them and bring their work to life. I am eager to learn from the Create the Vote team about the specific right level of funding over the coming months so that we can be competitive with our neighboring states who invest more dollars per capita in the arts and see a return on that investment— and hopefully to have the chance to serve as an advocate and bridge-builder among this community as a legislator.

Create the Vote CT is a nonpartisan public education campaign to raise awareness and support for the arts among voters and candidates running for public office. CT Arts Alliance launched the first Create the Vote CT during the gubernatorial election in 2018 and inspired focus on the arts during Governor Lamont’s transition and helped stabilize statewide public funding for the first time since the Great Recession. The initiative was originally conceived and developed at MASSCreative, a state arts advocacy organization in Massachusetts.

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