King County voters have an opportunity to pass a 0.1 percent sales tax to provide more access to culture and science. Actor Tom Skerritt reflects on the role arts education played in his life.
His mind always goes back to the bus rides from his school into downtown Detroit.
One was to the Detroit Institute of Art, where Rodin’s “The Thinker” sat outside, and where a Diego Rivera mural stretched across four walls. Another ride ended at a Detroit Symphony rehearsal conducted by Arturo Toscanini, who struggled to the podium, then raised his baton “and transformed to a young man … fingers fluttering like swallows in flight.”
All these years later, Tom Skerritt still marvels at what that school-sponsored “imagination enhancement program” did for him long ago, and how his exposure to the arts allowed him to imagine a life beyond his blue-collar upbringing, and to acting in films like “Top Gun” and “Alien.”
“‘Imagination enhancement’ experiences have led me to challenge the risk of possibilities and have a successful, creative life,” Skerritt said the other day. “Lucky for me.”
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The people of King County should have those same awakenings, he said, no matter their age. And Proposition 1 — a proposed 0.1 percent sales tax to provide more access to culture and science — can help make that happen.
The measure, also known as “Access for All,” would fund public-school cultural-access programs (including transportation). It would give money to cultural organizations with budgets of more than $1.2 million, and that provide public-school programs. And it would fund smaller, community-based cultural organizations in each county district. Think The Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center. Youth Theater Northwest.
Some opponents — including The Seattle Times editorial board — argue that the estimated $67.4 million the tax would raise annually would be better used to fund programs that combat our mental-health and homelessness crises. And they say that a penny per $10 — about $30 a year for a household with an $80,000 income — is regressive, because there is no state income tax to draw from. That disproportionately impacts the low-income families Prop 1 aims to inspire.
That conundrum was outlined in a great story by my colleague Brendan Kiley, who compared the measure and its 10-year journey to the ballot to Don Quixote: “ … lurching from one misadventure to another toward its fate.”
“Imagination might be the most significant, ignored issue there is,” he told me the other morning, when we met over coffee to talk about an essay he had written about the inspiration that art feeds.
“Music, dance, arts and crafts … They are paramount to gifting ourselves and our children something more about ourselves and what we can be,” Skerritt wrote. “We have to keep moving and learning, and it’s a process that starts with elementary schools.
“The math of all this is that experience informs the imagination, which informs intelligence, which informs instincts, which then drives impulse. It’s through ‘impulse’ that we grow, express and discover ourselves.
“In other words, to know ‘hot’ you have to touch it.”
I related to every word. As a kid, I participated in arts programs and remember them vividly: Young People’s Concerts run by the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center with Leonard Bernstein talking to us. Painting classes. School trips to museums, where I stood in wonder before the work of Claude Monet and other artists who inspire and soothe me to this day.
That penny on the $10, Skerritt said, is an investment in the future of our cities. If our minds and souls are nurtured by the arts — music and dance, visual arts and theater — we are better able to imagine and create solutions not only for ourselves, but for the hard problems that vex our communities.
“I don’t know what we would do without imagination,” Skerritt said. “How do we invent? How do we create? The more we inform our imaginations, the more we can give of ourselves.”
He paused, took a sip of his coffee and smiled to himself.
“There are some things you just can’t intellectualize,” he said.
In his essay, Skerritt wrote that most of his childhood friends “played it safe” and settled into safe jobs with pensions. They rarely traveled, and “died in spirit and life doing the same job every day.”
“They died minimizing, or avoiding the challenge of ‘change’, which, other than death, is the only absolute there is. Lacking active imagination, habit is just a habit.”
He called creative imagination “The prize and purchase of America. If we lose that, we lose the America that we love.”
Indeed, this is the county where dreamers built worldwide institutions that reached the sky (Boeing), are working to end disease (The Gates Foundation), put computers in our homes (Microsoft), made artificial intelligence affordable (Amazon), and fueled us for the daily battles we take on (Starbucks).
That creativity and imagination was surely nurtured by the art and science education that the county could continue by passing Prop 1.
Without it, how will we nurture the minds that create the solutions for the struggles of the day — and the future?
“Creativity is what is going to get us there,” Skerritt said. “Through all these issues, and whatever else is coming.”