Is Public Funding of the Arts a Waste of Money?

This is the thirty-third episode of Public Interest Podcast with Eliot Pfanstiehl, Strathmore Hall Executive Director, who speaks about the role and meaning of art in our lives as a means of relating the human experience.

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Eliot Pfanstiehl is the Managing Director and CEO of Strathmore Music Center in North Bethesda, Maryland.

Pfanstiehl: I like to think that [advancing the public interest has] pretty much [defined] my life. Let me go [back in time] for a moment; my father was the spokesman for Metro during [its construction] and he spent most of his nights in people's living rooms telling them about this wonderful [subway system] that would unify the region, [and connect] people, jobs, and places [across] the entire [DC metropolitan] region.

He would take me with him and I'd walk into this total strangers living room and he'd take off his coat, roll up his sleeves, and he'd sit on the edge of a chair and talk to [anywhere from] five people to 50 people. He would [tell me that] “if you [speak] from the heart, [your message] just comes out [and] if you listen to the people in the room, they'll tell you what they need to know.”

Cooper: So Eliot, what does your heart tell you?

Pfanstiehl: My heart tells me that the arts [would always be] part of my life. My mother played the piano and my father played the violin [throughout] both of their lives. I [became involved in] high school musicals because, [as] it turned out, boy dancers could get lots of girls. I had a decent set of rhythm and not a lot of guys wanted to dance, so I did all of the musicals in [my] high school and decided that I really liked dance. It was a strange thing [in the 1960s to] decide that I had the theater bug [and] ruin the grease smell of the crowd, [though] I quickly decided that while I loved it I was never going to be great at it.

[I did find that I was exceptionally talented] helping people [who] were very good at [musical theater] get on the stage, in front of a microphone, or in front of an audience. I [began] to see [the facilitation of the presentation of others’ artistic talents as] my mission [in life]. I like to think of musicians in particular as [a particular breed of] angels on Earth. A really talented musician [is often able to enter] their own world; they're not actually touching the ground; they're falling just above it. That's how angelic and just how elevated [musicians] are in terms of the world they live in. And I [decided that] if I can't be the musician then let me be the guy who puts them on the stage.

Cooper: How did it come to pass that you recognized that you weren't going to become a world class musical artist and that you had a role in facilitating transmission of the arts to the public?

Pfanstiehl: As I was coming out of college I was discovered by a woman named June Allen, a British woman who had moved to Rockville and started a theater program called Street 70 [because] it was literally born in the streets and it was the 1970s. She [invited me to work with her] as an arts administrator [to do] whatever it [would] take to put the theater [and to] put art in front of [the public, and to make] direct and make lovely pronouncements [about the arts]. She grew up in England [where it is taken for granted that] the arts are supported by government.

Cooper: Perhaps at this juncture it might be worthwhile to define what art is and why it is important?

Pfanstiehl: Fair question. I think art is the expression of the [human] narrative through many different disciplines, [whether it be] theater, music, visual arts, or dance. [Self-expression through art] is a uniquely human activity. People like to tell their story and hear others’ stories. [Creative expression] that uses as much metaphor as fact, that uses the heart to amplify the spoken or written word; that's art. And so people who understand that [concept and] connect with audiences are artists.

I can't imagine my life or the life of my children or the [lives of those] in this community without the arts. [Without art life would not have] color, design, sound quality, poetry, literature, film, or television. [That would] not even be a life worth living. But I don't think that would ever happen because [humanity] cannot [help but] be expressive.

Cooper: How does your work facilitating the expression of the human experience enhance your story?

Pfanstiehl: I really like that word: “facilitation.” [Its root is] “facile;” to make easy, and that's exactly how I see my job. I used to explain back in the early days of Street 70 that my job was to [serve as an] interpreter [for the arts] to the purchasing department of the county government, explaining that when you buy a 2”x4” for a set it can be reused unlike in construction where once it's gone, it's gone. My job was to explain the art world to the political world and the political world to the art world. And I was the facile lubricant between the two and I thought I could do that pretty well.

Cooper: You've spoken about… gaining fluency in both the arts and politics. How did this come to pass?

Pfanstiehl: Well while I was dancing in musicals I was a student council junkie. I was the president of my junior and senior class and the president of the school senate. I [attended and later taught] leadership workshops over the summer and I [eventually] became the president of Leadership Maryland. The leadership training [programs that I teach are] incredible. [Each year I meet dozens of individuals] who are going to be important people and I get to stand still and just talk to them [and later to call on them to connect them to someone else].

[Throughout my life] there has been the arts and [then] there [has been my] civic involvement [where I seek to] engage people in joint decision making [about our] quality of life. All of these pieces have worked together: Leadership helps me in my art business, as I often bring leadership [participants to Strathmore], and that's how I [increase] awareness of Strathmore, [which is supported in part] with public funding.

Cooper: I see you being interested in interacting with politicians and artists, regardless of title, because you enjoy the intrinsic value of human interaction?

Pfanstiehl: There's one other thing I'd put in there, [which is that] I want to connect with people who are [actually] doing something because [though many] people talk, very few are willing to [make] sacrifices… and be persistent until a product is produced. For me whether it's putting on a play, writing a musical, producing a series of blues [concerts], or getting 12,000 fifth graders into my hall, [it’s the end product that provides substance and justification for my work].

[Through the course of my career I have come across an] amazing number of people of goodwill. [I have come across someone who trained the homeless to become car mechanics and now those homeless individuals are] able to buy their own home [thereby becoming their own solution to their homelessness]. [I have met someone who worked at a homeless shelter who instituted a tutoring program for kids on] the bottom rung of the social ladder. I love [when] people… connect [others] to an outcome.

Cooper: And yet [your involvement in public service comes at a great cost to you, financially and] in terms of time and energy. Why give so much of yourself to [improve the lives of] individuals whom you’ve never met?

Pfanstiehl: In almost every case I receive much more than I give and my family will tell you that they wouldn't not have me any other way. [Throughout my life] I have tried to [relax by going] to Maine every summer for two weeks. By the end of the first week I am ready to get out of the rocking chair and get off the porch and get back to life. The classic definition of an extrovert is a person who refuels themselves by being around other people. I'm an extrovert… and being around people… pumps me up.

I'm also fairly [introverted and I spend] two and a half hours virtually every morning alone at Panera. [I drink] coffee, [read] The Washington Post, I do my e-mails, [and] I think. [By] about 8:30 AM I can get in my car [and arrive at work in] five minutes [ready for an] entire day [filled] with people.

Cooper: How does being an extrovert affect your decision to pursue public service?

Pfanstiehl: Politicians and actors are not too far apart. They both know [how to] and enjoy playing to an audience. They feed off of it and they play to it. I think it's very hard for an introvert to step up and be a public official who has to face the public [at every turn; it’s] not impossible but it certainly must take a toll. I think my extroversion [has driven my desire] to connect with people.

Cooper: It’s interesting how personality plays such a role in the path one chooses in life.

Pfanstiehl: I think it absolutely does. [In large part I believe it comes from] your parents. My dad was a very public guy and my mother was a very private lady. She was a piano teacher, which was quite the opposite of the three of us children. I got the extraversion gene and my sister is the Phi Beta Kappa brilliant, quiet introvert.

Cooper: [You’ve spoken about how your personality has affected your path of public service and I’d now like to ask you about place]. You mentioned that you grew up in Montgomery County [and that you continue to live and work] in Montgomery County. You are the CEO of Montgomery County’s [preeminent arts facility. You have initiatives across the County. Montgomery County seems to have become integral to your identity; would you agree?]

Pfanstiehl: [I am proudest of one of our projects in particular;] our East County Initiative which [takes Strathmore’s] best assets go to [an area that has] many talented people [and] virtually no [arts] facilities [or] assets. I'm [taking] the best of us over there, raising up what exists, and we're going to make the East County an arts rich place. And I just love that. [We have] church choirs [and] Latin dance competitions. We've got 93 people in an East County string orchestra that didn't even exist a year ago. We're just having unbelievable success over there because they're so hungry and they so they want it so bad and it's productive. It's not just talking about doing [something; it’s about having a measurable impact on that population].

Cooper: For those who aren't familiar with Montgomery County, the eastern portion tends to have less wealth than the western portion, which is where Strathmore is located, and also tends to be demographically more diverse. Those populations tend to have fewer resources [than their counterparts on in the western portion of the county and therefore Eliot is] excited about the program bringing resources and funds for the arts to East County.

Pfanstiehl: [I’d like to demonstrate the difference in challenges facing the different communities on each side of the County]. In the West County there's wealth, [population] density, corporate support [for arts programs], and parents [can drive their children to a course]. [When I place] a little sign [in the community advertising a] children's art course, 16 cars drive up with well-dressed kids. Tuition money [for the course is] in their pocket and their parents promise to get them [to the course on time every time]. [That’s generally how I would characterize the western portion of Montgomery County].

[It’s a different story with the East County]. First of all, [I would have to ask myself if] anybody bothered to read the sign. [In all likelihood] they're not even looking because their lives are so busy [just trying to make ends meet]. Many [East County kids are coming from] dual-income, single parent households and [consequently] they're latchkey kids. There's very little time or [viable transportation options] to get kids to [an art course]. There's often literally no place [for these kids to] practice [a musical instrument] or [if so,] too darn loud.

[At this point] we haven't even gotten in the door to the first activity. I call these threshold issues. In the East County [there may be] five threshold issues before you get to the first note of instrument. In the West County I know that [I will] get a string orchestra, a chorus, [and that the orchestra will perform]. [In the East County local institutions have] heard that we were coming over and they opened up their arms [offering us] free space and free transportation. And I've found teachers who [offer] their time and effort as volunteers. It's just the most heartwarming thing I've done since we moved here.

Montgomery County has been and is my home. I've got 60 plus years of [experience here]. I know what I feel and I love it. I will say though that this is a tough county to feel an affinity towards. There was an old political slogan… [about] making the county a community and we used to laugh at it. That was a real stretch because nobody thought this county was a community. [When asked where you’re from while you’re traveling, invariably] you say “Washington.” So we have [always tended] to live under the shadow of Washington. Community starts when common interests [align] to achieve a common goal. And the problem with suburban sprawl is that there is no center; there's no cause to united the population.

[Increasingly though Montgomery County has an identity.] This art center serves one million people in Montgomery County alone [and in that sense there is a vibrant arts community here that is not, strictly speaking, geographically bounded.]

I would characterize the Montgomery County community as a place that is very proud of what it has achieved. Most people have had to climb up a ladder to land here. They [frequently made a conscious decision to live here and] have built a quality of life that they're proud of and have a school system that is second to none. They have a political system that is probably one of the cleanest in the nation. If you were to hold up your hand to the County’s Master Plan, all of your fingers would be on park land with transit corridors placed between those parks, and that's the way it was supposed to be.

We finally hit the million person master plan that we were built to be. So essentially we dreamed it and it came true; we have created a sense of [place here in Montgomery County].

Cooper: We're nearing the end of this podcast and as we do so I'd like to ask you to reflect on all of your years of service both through civic engagement and through promoting the arts. What does it mean? Why have you engaged in public service?

Pfanstiehl: I have been very fortunate to [have had sufficient resources to address the challenges that I have been given in life. I have had the opportunity to launch various initiatives that have] grown [and] prospered. I'm very happy to look back at all of the horses that I bet on [and to know that those initiatives succeeded at least] in part due to my unique contribution. There were certainly mistakes along the way and fortunately many of them [are now] buried and [forgotten] but the successes are really heartwarming.

And all of [these successes are all the more meaningful because, in many cases, others have come after me and have taken the programs] beyond anything that I had done. And [it gives me great pleasure to know that my son, after spending] some time watching me on stage doing what I do, [told my wife how] very proud [he was] of his father. He was very proud of the fact that [we had built] something that we had talked about five years ago. It gives me great pride to see that change is possible if you connect the dots and get at it with creative people, [giving them the space and environment they need to follow their instincts].

Cooper: And that has been Eliot Pfanstiehl who speaks of legacy in terms of creating communities, establishing institutions, and promoting causes that will be perpetuated by others long after he is gone. [In this sense, not only is he able to serve those in his community today, but] he is able to [serve those who will be in his community for years to come].