Sue Hess uses her powers of persuasion to lobby on behalf of the arts throughout Maryland 'GODMOTHER OF ARTS ADVOCACY

March 29, 1992|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Staff Writer

In an office the size of a concession stand, arts lobbyist Sue Hess delivers a bravura telephone performance: She coaxes, cautions and commiserates with legislators, arts leaders, CEOs, union people. As the legislature decides upon next year's arts funding, anxiety runs high in Maryland's arts community. Concern floods the phone lines.

Chairman of Maryland Citizens for the Arts Inc. -- the only organization which represents all the arts in the state -- Ms. Hess is in great demand. She's the one person everyone will talk to when they're not talking to each other. She's also the one person most likely to know what's happening. And, like a veteran air traffic controller, she's very good at tracking several subjects at once.

"You're kidding! I love it," she tells one legislator, who offers a moment of comic relief fresh from the budget battles. She mouths an answer to a visitor's unrelated question, leans back in her chair and runs her slender, Anguilla-tanned fingers through her hair. Her hazel eyes widen in surprise at another Annapolis anecdote.

Today's big subject is the state of the state's arts funding and whether or not the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will get the extra money it has bargained for. The orchestra provoked ire within the arts community by asking the legislature for an extra $1 million to reduce its budget deficit this year. Criticism held that the orchestra's solo lobbying not only came at a bad economic time but also threatened the strength of the statewide coalition of arts organizations.

(This week the symphony's request was denied by the General Assembly. In addition, $700,000 in grants to arts organizations was cut from the proposed budget for the Maryland State Arts Council.)

"United we stand, divided we fall," Ms. Hess says. "What I see from this situation is that the symphony has opened Pandora's box. Probably every organization who gets funding from the arts council will lobby their own individual legislators for increases next year. I think the legislators are going to be inundated, unhappily inundated, with requests from anywhere from 50 to 150 organizations."

Ms. Hess, by the way, is a big fan of the BSO: She sits on the boards of the symphony and Center Stage. After nearly 30 years of living in Salisbury, however, she is also one of the most prominent supporters of the smaller arts organizations whose constellation stretches from Wicomico to Garrett counties.

These connections have helped her build one of the nation's most respected arts advocacy groups, according to Marilyn Wheaton, chairman of the State Arts Advocacy League of America. Maryland Citizens represents roughly 8,000 members. Its primary purpose is to lobby the General Assembly for money that the Maryland State Arts Council distributes to arts organizations, arts councils and individual artists throughout the state.

And arts funding has looked a lot better since Ms. Hess has helped to increase it. In 1980, the year she replaced Maryland Citizens founder Judge Francis D. Murnaghan Jr. as chairman, the state gave the arts council $1.3 million. Ten years later, the council received $8.7 million, a sum that allowed qualified arts organizations to receive almost 10 percent of their annual operating costs.

That kind of increase has meant that many nonprofit arts groups operate more like businesses than volunteer groups. They have hired fund-raisers, bought computers, conducted market studies.

And they have expanded and strengthened what arts people call the state's cultural infrastructure: A 1989 study by the state showed that more than 12,000 jobs were created by Maryland's nonprofit arts industry and that the arts contributed $357 million annually to the economy.

At the moment, Maryland ranks 10th in per capita arts spending among American states and territories, according to the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies.

"If you were to call Sue Hess the godmother of arts advocacy groups in the country, it wouldn't be an understatement," says Sam Campana, a member of SAALA and executive director of Arizonans for Cultural Development.

You might also call her one of the arts' greatest volunteers. People are astonished to learn that the 59-year-old lobbyist works full time simply for the love of it. (Married to John Hess, owner of the Hess Apparel chain of women's specialty clothing stores on the Eastern Shore, she has refused a paycheck since beginning her advocacy work in 1977.)

Ms. Hess can pitch the bottom-line importance of the arts as well as any. But it's not what keeps her starry-eyed. She struggles to describe the emotion and inspiration generated by a recent performance of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

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