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Last week I received this email:

Fwd: Petition to Obama to Appoint a Secretary of the Arts

“Quincy Jones has started a petition to ask President-Elect Obama to appoint a Secretary of the Arts. While many other countries have Ministers of Art or Culture for centuries, The United States has never created such a position. We in the arts need this and the country needs the arts–now more than ever. Please take a moment to sign this important petition and then pass it on to your friends and colleagues.”

Then I received it again. And again after that. By week’s end it appeared in my inbox 7 times. I felt the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. The internet was flexing its virile muscle in a way that could not be ignored: community people calling to action a community movement.

Obama, are you listening?

I tracked down the man (there are two, actually) behind this thing and a couple of emails later, the Daze had an interview with Peter Weitzner, a professional musician in New York City. Below is the story of the little petition that could.

You can follow the link at the end of this interview to sign the petition or you can do it now: http://www.petitiononline.com/esnyc/petition.html

AUSTIN DAZE: How did this come about?

PETER WEITZNER: I’m a bass player in New York City and I listen to the radio a lot and in New York on WNYC there was a show called Soundcheck. The interviewer, John Schaefer, was interviewing Quincy Jones at the time. Quincy was discussing his long friendship with Obama—I believe he even said that he decided at Quincy Jones’s kitchen table to go for the bid for the Presidency. Anyway, he continued to say that he would love to see Obama create a Cabinet position for the Secretary for the Arts—a Cultural Minister—and that he was going to press Obama to do that. I called my colleague, Jaime Austria, the activist of the group and told him to listen to it. Jamie decided to create an online petition and that’s how it started. With the internet, it doesn’t take much to implement an idea once you have it. It’s been going quite strong now and the last week has been just incredible. We’ve hit 100,000.

AD: How long has the petition been in circulation?

PW: It’s been since late November. There was some minor activity but then it really took off on January 7th. I think we may have caught the attention of some conductor organization that started spreading the word. It’s been rapid fire after that. We’ve been doing, I don’t know, 20,000 a day.

AD: What does the Secretary of the Arts mean to you?

PW: We’re professional musicians—we’re performers—we’re not sure what we can do except to advocate the arts in education. New York City in the last 35 years, since the financial crisis of the mid-70s, has been decimated in the arts with respect to early education in public schools. Arts education was the first to go. We are game to try and put that back into the public school system for all arts. Not just music but dance, and theater, fine arts, and photography. We feel that the sciences are coming around to this notion also. Economists see that the arts serve an incredible purpose to teach students how to focus and concentrate; to solve abstract problems. Musicians are very good at beating their head against the wall until they solve a problem. The power of concentration of a musician, if that could carry over to other studies, would be very beneficial. The sense of development over a long time is amazing. There is that aspect of being an artist. It’s sort of like skiing. When you don’t know how to ski and you first start to learn you start at the top of mountain and you work your way down a little bit, and then later you look up and see where you’ve come from–it’s quite an amazing feeling. We know in this financial environment it’s difficult to outlay what the political duties of an administrator position might be but we really feel an advocate for arts education to develop a creative culture and artistic thinking in society would help with a lot of problems we are facing these days. Low mileage, high mileage cars—we’ve got a lot of issues and we need to have creative thinkers solve these problems. That’s what America’s been good at.

AD: Working musicians here in Austin get free healthcare. The same cannot be said of other cities and I know a lot of artists are concerned about that.

PW: I think healthcare is an issue for the entire country. It’s one of the base factors that determine everything in terms of employment. We want healthy workers. People can’t hire people if they can’t afford to pay health insurance. The idea that the cost of health care keeps them from creating a business is insane. If they call you an independent contractor, then you are sunk. You have to pay your own social security and everything else and it’s torture. In New York it’s almost impossible to live. I don’t think we’ve seen the beginning of the real fall of the housing crisis here yet. Somebody still has a lot of money here. They took it all and they squirreled it all away.

AD: Have you heard anything from Quincy Jones? Does he know about the petition?

PW: He knows about it for sure. He is glad that there is some kind of grass roots movement now. We all agree: it’s not the top priority right now but it needs to be integrated into the solution.

AD: It seems to me that while it may not be top priority, the initial steps could be taken and it could begin to flourish on its own.

PW: By all means. And we know in order to fix the infrastructure here for the next generation, they need to improve education. That’s one of the first goals. The population is so dumbed down by the last administration if they want time to help the kids they better get moving right away.

AD: Despite having grown up in an activist family, I’ve become pretty cynical myself. In recent months though, I find myself buying into the possibility of change. Do you think seeing the response you have gotten that something is happening on a larger level? Something we haven’t seen in some time?

PW: Between Obama’s campaign and something like this, the internet has really changed things. The speed in which a real moment of truth can pass around in such a way is really truly amazing. We have become viral, as they say. That’s really fun to watch. We are really enjoying seeing the names that have signed on. Of course, one of the problems with the internet is that we can’t really be sure if anyone on there is really who they say they are. We do have a couple of deceased people up here that we have seen but we haven’t found Mickey Mouse yet.

AD: It’s interesting that you brought that up because on your end getting the fakes is a problem, on my end as a recipient of the email, I’m concerned you’re spamming me or sending me a virus.

PW: It is for real. Petitiononline.com really does their best to stop spamming. I had one person complain that once they signed they received a lot of spam. If you’re on the internet at all there is no way you can tell where your spam is coming from. If you send one email you are exposing your email address to the world and I don’t believe she got spam from signing our petition.

AD: I haven’t gotten anything.

PW: We’ve received no other complaints. 1 out of 100,000.

AD: What happens now? Is there a time limit?

PW: Well the original goal was to try and deliver the petition at the inauguration but now that we see that it’s growing so fast and there are so many other important things for the government to deal with I think we are going to let it ride and see what happens.

AD: And how do you plan on delivering it?

PW: Well none of us could actually afford to print it out on paper so I think we are going to try and just deliver it on a CD ROM or DVD at some point.

AD: What’s the technical process for delivering something like this?

PW: I’m not quite sure. My senator from New York, Charles Schumer, lives up the corner from me and if I have to I’ll just deliver it to his apartment. We’ll find a way. I wouldn’t be surprised if he knows about it already. Here in Brooklyn we’re six degrees of brownstones. I’m sure somewhere in Washington they know about this by now.

AD: Is this your first foray into this kind of grassroots movement?

PW: I’m a child of Vietnam. I’m almost 53 years old. You want to talk about cynical, my draft year was the last year that they pulled a number; they actually stopped the draft my year. I come from a political time. I’m involved with Jaime and a lot of other musicians in a group called El Sistema. The website is www.elsistema-nyc.org. We’ve taken to heart Jose Antonio Abreu’s mission in Venezuela. Despite a variety of political regimes he’s been able to start a musical education program there with kids from the barrio that turned out first rate musicians. It’s changed the whole nature of Venezuela and the music industry world wide. They have the Simon Bolivar National Youth Orchestra. You can find them on you tube. They are just amazing. We’ve taken his movement to heart and are trying to advocate music education in the New York City Public Schools. We have a petition for that: http://elsistema-nyc.org/petition.asp. We want to bring arts education back to New York City. That one hasn’t been quite as popular but we are very happy about the response. It’s just great.

AD: You are doing an amazing thing. Thank you.

To sign the petition: http://www.petitiononline.com/esnyc/petition.html

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