War, Healthcare Simmers and Burns. Why Are Two Senators Heated Over Pig Iron?


Arts CutsDespite the NEA fracas of several months ago, many on the left still refuse to believe the right-wing is gearing up for a full-scale attack on the arts in the United States.

I have maintained all year that one is inevitable, refusing to abandon the topic even when some people, flicking their hands blithely, simply prefer to shoo reality away.

Story continues below.

Now, unfortunately, things are becoming more specific.

Story continues below.

The Clyde Fitch Report has received an email from the Pig Iron Theatre Company of Philadelphia. Recipients included the cast of Welcome to Yuba City, which world-premiered Sept. 2 through Sept. 19 as part of the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival. As Pig Iron described it, the piece is a

cavalcade of American weirdos, dreamers, cowboys, criminals and clowns. Featuring a cast chock-full of our ensemble’s extraordinary physical and comic talents, Yuba City is a kaleidoscopic portrait of the character(s) of the American West: stoic cowpokes and New Age philosophers; alien intruders and conspiracy theorists; gum-chewing diner waitresses, acrimonious exes, and passing-through tourists.

And according to the webpage for the show, Welcome to Yuba City was funded by, in part:

The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage through the Philadelphia Theatre Initiative. This project is also made possible with support from the William Penn Foundation, the Charlotte Cushman Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Speaking of the NEA: Earlier this year Pig Iron received an extra $25,000 from the agency, part of the special $50 million in stimulus money appropriated to it by Congress.

Story continues below.

Well, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) — whose daughter is an opera singer — together with Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), has gone on the attack against the Pig Iron grant. It is part of a report citing 100 examples of governmental waste flowing from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

The Pig Iron grant charts at #26 on the Coburn-McCain hit list. Sitting at #14 is “anti-capitalist, socially-conscious puppet shows” presented by Minnesota’s In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre ($100,000). Located at #25 is “Shakespearean Festivals” ($225,000) — not one in particular, but apparently the genre. Found at #36 is “Jazz Festivals” ($400,000) — again, in essence, the genre. At #70: a “storytelling festival in Utah” ($15,000).

Story continues below.

True — and in fairness — some of these projects are silly. At #73: a Hollywood Entertainment Museum ($20,000)?

But this is why the economic impact argument (despite what the likes of Jeremy Gerard might say) is essential. And the email Pig Iron points out as much.

Story continues below.

And where were Coburn or McCain when the Bush Administration was taking the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan off-budget and running deficits high as the eye can see?

One news story has already pegged the senators making a grievous error, so perhaps we can count on more stories to trickle out in the coming days.

But even if they do, the arts are, and will remain, an easy target. This is why Pig Iron is so smart to capitalize upon this moment to fundraise. So please do read their email, and give if you can. And stay ready to fight.

Story continues below.

Dear Pig Iron Friends,

This Wednesday, we awoke to find an unexpectedly early lump of coal in our stocking. Senators John McCain and Tom Coburn issued a report (available here) on 100 purportedly “silly” grants issued by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. A grant to Pig Iron administered by the National Endowment for the Arts, earmarked to retain one of our staff positions and to help fund our seven actors’ salaries for Welcome to Yuba City, somehow made the cut (it’s at #26, for easy scrolling.) Pretty amazing.

Where to begin? We could say that out of every $100 spent through the stimulus package, only two cents were spent on the arts, and that most of us in nonprofit arts organizations who received those federal dollars made them stretch as far as they’d possibly go. We could scratch our heads at the notion that somehow, an exuberantly funny cowboy/clown piece isn’t worthy of funding; that its artists aren’t working in “real” jobs, aren’t paying taxes or mortgages or heating bills this year.

Mostly, we’ll just say this: for three weeks in September in Philadelphia, around 200 people per night traveled up to our converted warehouse space at 5th and Fairmount to see Welcome to Yuba City. They ate at local restaurants, had a drink at the Festival Bar, shopped in Northern Liberties.

Some folks came from out of town for the Festival and stayed in Philly hotels. They packed themselves into a sold-out house, gawked at Mimi Lien’s stupendous set, and doubled over laughing at priceless comic creations like Charlotte Ford’s culturally savvy cowgirl or James Sugg’s pink-clad speedwalker. By the time Yuba City got around to its astounding, ecstatic ending (which we won’t ruin for anyone), our average audience was a clapping-in-time, convulsively-giggling, wonderful mess.

If you want to tell Senators McCain and Coburn that you think that’s a good return on the government’s investment, now’s your chance. Any gift — from $5 to $50,000 — will demonstrate your support for the value of original, unconventional, and thrilling performance, and make a statement to those who think that art (and artists) are inessential in these times. You can click here to make a gift to Pig Iron now.

(Also, if you’d like to give John McCain, Tom Coburn, or your own representative a piece of your mind about this, then hey, we won’t be the ones to stop you. Hometown readers can also sign up for the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance advocacy alerts for further updates on arts funding and legislation.)

Your “silly” pals,
Pig Iron