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10 Questions with…Rusty Foley Executive director of Arizona Citizens for the Arts

Monday, August 6, 2018   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Andrea Evans
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By: Karen Werner

1. Talk about your career before Arizona Citizens for the Arts.

I was a newspaper reporter for 10 years — a lot of that time at the old Phoenix Gazette. Then I spent 25 years with the Salt River Project, mostly as manager of a department that involved community relations, advertising communications and strategic communications. In the course of my work, I became familiar with the nonprofit sector. By the time I left, we were distributing about $3 million a year in corporate grants, and the arts were a large part of our focus.

2. What role have the arts played in your life?

I served on the Childsplay board of directors for a number of years. I was also on the Arizona Theatre Company board off and on for about 15 years and on corporate councils for both the Phoenix Art Museum and Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. In terms of my own involvement in the arts, I was raised in a family where being exposed to the arts was important. I studied piano for nine years as a child. We were taken to art museums and the theater. And while I don’t consider myself an artist, I have been an appreciator of the arts all my life and consider it one of the richest aspects of my life.

3. For those who aren’t familiar with Arizona Citizens for the Arts, can you tell us about the organization?

Arizona Citizens for the Arts is Arizona’s only statewide arts advocacy organization. It’s 37 years old, so it’s been around quite a long time. Our purpose is to promote the value of the arts in the community and build more support for the arts in both the private and public sectors. A major part of our work is focused on lobbying and advocating in support of the Arizona Commission on the Arts. We are a grassroots organization and depend on our network of 5,000 supporters to rally to the cause when we ask. As much work as we do with legislators and other elected officials, we wouldn’t be able to do the work we do if we didn’t have that energetic, committed base of advocates across the state.

4. Why are the arts so important for Arizona?

Art helps define the culture of a community. In Arizona, arts are also a huge part of our tourism industry. Think about the wonderful indigenous cultures that are represented in Arizona. The presentation of those cultures is in the art. In a major community where people want to live, raise children and do business, you need opportunities that enhance quality of life. Not only in the major metropolitan areas, but in all of the small communities around Arizona. Some of the most important arts organizations and arts activity are going on in smaller communities that are looking to the arts to help them rebuild their downtowns to attract more visitors.

5. Do you have any numbers you can share on the economic impact of the arts?

Sometimes people tend to think of the nonprofit arts and culture community as charities and supporting them as philanthropy. But we have data from Americans for the Arts that show that for every dollar invested into a nonprofit arts organization in Arizona, the additional economic activity beyond the price of the ticket returns an additional dollar to $1.50 back into the community. That’s a real economic impact. There is an interesting report generated every couple of years from a national organization called DataArts. The most recent showed that the 250 or so most active arts organizations in the state attract about 14 million admissions per year. That’s people going to exhibitions, to the theater, symphony or concerts.

6. What about the role of arts education? How does Arizona fare in that regard?

There is so much data out there that quantitatively demonstrates the impact that arts education has on young people. Not only is it enriching to their lives, it actually improves learning in other disciplines. Very often the presence of a vibrant arts program helps the overall school environment. Kids who may not be engaged in any other way in school are engaged in music, drama or visual arts and that improves the overall environment of the school. Absenteeism goes down, behavioral problems go down. Being exposed to drama and music at a young age improves learning because it helps language development and the understanding of abstract concepts. Music in particular actually changes the way the brain functions and helps develop the same parts of the brain that we use to do mathematics.

7. Do you feel like you have a receptive audience to this message?

I think at an emotional level people understand that being exposed to the arts is a good thing. But we have work to do in terms of deepening the understanding that arts can be useful for every student, just like physical education is good for every kid. I hear a lot of times that it’s important to be well-rounded. That’s certainly true, but that also leads to the arts not being taken quite as seriously as language arts, mathematics or science. When we’re struggling to push scores up in language arts and math, the automatic response seems to be that we need to spend more time on those subjects. What they haven’t given a lot of consideration to is the fact that exposing kids to the arts may actually help them learn these other academic disciplines better. Part of our challenge is to spread that word.

8. Do you have any big initiatives going on now?

We’re going to be launching a whole new effort to try to build an arts education advocacy network that would function as a policy advisory group and as a grassroots network similar to what the rest of Arizona Citizens for the Arts is. We want an active, engaged group specifically interested in arts education and willing to contact school board members, show up for budget hearings in school districts and contact the legislature about making some tweaks in state law to support arts education. We’ve not been organized around that subject before and we think that we need to organize some kind of network in order to make some serious progress in increasing the quality and availability of arts education in our schools.

9. If people want to help with this effort or other efforts what’s the best way they can get involved?

Like our Facebook page and go to and get on our mailing lists. Go into our advocacy center and sign up for advocacy alerts. We communicate quite a bit through social media and through our email system.

10. How would you characterize the state of the arts in Arizona?

The state of arts in Arizona is vibrant and energetic! There’s a lot of great work going on, whether you’re talking about Yuma, Prescott, Winslow or Douglas. People are doing wonderful work in large and small communities all over the state. But they need better support, and all of us as individuals can do that. Make a contribution. Buy a ticket. Join the advocacy network at Arizona Citizens for the Arts and help out.

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