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‘The arts are not voluntary. They’re not extra,’ says Mayor Biss

Mayor Daniel Biss talked about the value of art at the annual Mayor’s Awards for the Arts program Saturday, Nov. 19, at Studio5, 1938 Dempster St. This is an edited transcript of his remarks:

Evanston Mayor Daniel Biss at the Mayor’s Awards for the Arts program Saturday at Studio5. Credit: Richard Cahan

“It’s a hard time. I’m not speaking [of] threats to democracy, rising anti-Semitism, racial violence, white nationalism, curtailment of rights, geopolitical strife.

“I feel like we as a people, a human people, are having a harder and harder time connecting with each other these days. And some of that is what happens when you get a pandemic and an era of lots and lots of digital technology that allows us to kind of get work done without connecting in a human way.

“I’m sorry to sound like a very old man. We find it harder to disagree constructively. We default to combat. I think we don’t really understand how best to learn from those who might see the world differently than us.

“And we have figured out how to segregate ourselves, not just along racial lines, but on all these different dimensions into communities that are more and more homogeneous. From all the different ways that the beautiful cornucopia for human experience ought to allow us to experience.

The crowd at Studio5 applauds Evanston Mayor Daniel Biss as he introduces winners of the Mayor’s Awards for the Arts Credit: Richard Cahan

“I feel this as someone who has been in politics for 15 years. But I feel even during the course of that time, a diminishment in our ability to constructively learn from those with whom we disagree and to productively feel the tension that comes from disagreement in a way that enables us to grow.

“So I worry about that. It scares me as a human being and scares me as a parent. It scares me as somebody who likes to fantasize optimistically about the future. I don’t have great answers.

“But the best answers to the problem that I’m sort of dancing around all come from the arts. We all come together to make something beautiful, to enjoy something beautiful together, to experience that beauty and communicate about it with each other. That’s what builds that muscle. That’s what allows us to enjoy and thrive on differences, not find it frightening or off-putting or cause us to retreat.

“And so in a time like this, the arts are not voluntary. They’re not extra. They’re not just some other thing that we get to focus on when we’re lucky enough to have done all the rest of our work and have eaten our vegetables. They are the tool that can lift us out of the most problematic parts of this moment and build for us the kind of community that we want to thrive.

“Thank you for putting the time and effort into this work to build these social structures that all of us need. That all of us want. That all of us can benefit from. This is the one night a year that we the city put on an event and celebrate [art], but I just think we ought to be thinking all year about how much we benefit from what the arts give this community. Every day, every week, every month.”

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