When film star Robert Redford was starting the Sundance Festival in Utah in the late 1970s, there were times when he felt like a barker outside a seedy nightclub.
"Sundance was a rocky road, and there were a lot of near-fatalities along the way," Redford told about 1,000 arts administrators who gathered in Baltimore this weekend for the half-century summit of the advocacy group Americans for the Arts.
"When the festival started, it was just me and two other people. We had one theater, and I'd stand by the front door and urge people to give us a try. I felt like a man who works in a strip joint saying, 'Why don't you come on in?' "
Redford, who was the honorary chairman of the arts conference, wasn't merely telling an amusing, mildly risque anecdote when he addressed the group Friday at a downtown hotel. For him, the story perfectly illustrates the importance of the arts in driving the economy.
Redford said he was excited when he obtained a $25,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1979 to start Sundance.
"I felt that I needed the imprimatur of a respected organization to give my effort some authenticity," he said.
Now, nearly 70,000 film buffs descend on Sundance every year, and they spend up to $90 million during the 10-day festival.
"That's a lot of change for the state of Utah," Redford said.
"The fear that the arts are a threat comes from minds that are very small and narrow, but unfortunately, some of them hold congressional seats. We have to get rid of that thinking, and probably get rid of those people."
Conference organizers were quick to capitalize on Redford's point. They say the arts also fuel the economy closer to home. The four-day conference, for example, is expected to generate revenues of nearly $1.3 million for Baltimore, according to an estimate prepared by the travel research and consulting firm D.K. Shiflett & Associates.
An estimated 1,200 people are expected to attend the conference, and about 850 are from out of town. The Shiflett report projected that the average conference participant will spend more than $1,000 on transportation, hotel bills, restaurants and admission to area events.
Redford wasn't the only pop culture figure to show up in Baltimore this weekend to promote the conference.
The slate of activities included a keynote address from Arianna Huffington, who founded the popular online blog The Huffington Post, and a performance by John Waters of his one-actor play, "The Filthy World."
Conference attendees at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront cheered loudly at a written greeting from President Barack Obama, in which he extolled "the power of art to move and inspire us to transcend time, distances and cultural borders."
Redford arrived at the conference just before making his remarks, spoke for about 15 minutes and then left immediately after. His schedule didn't allow time for mingling with conference participants.
But there was no question that the actor was the marquee attraction. He was wearing light-colored jeans, black-framed spectacles, a white blazer and sneakers and an expensive-looking shirt the color of wet sand.
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake introduced Redford, and sounded star-struck when she declared, "I am the envy of every woman in City Hall right now."
The famously liberal Redford and Huffington, who is divorced from a Republican congressman, have been on opposite sides of the political spectrum at times. But the tenor of their remarks was remarkably similar.
Huffington, like Redford, took swipes at the nation's political leaders. Both decried the absence of arts education in the schools. And both told personal stories that reflected the importance of the arts in their own lives.
Huffington, who has written biographies of the painter Pablo Picasso and opera singer Maria Callas, revealed that the arts played a key role in helping her 19-year-old daughter, Isabella, weather a crisis.
"My youngest daughter went through an eating disorder, and part of her therapy was art," Huffington said.
"She kept on with it, and she just had her first art show at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica. Art taught her to take all of the warring energies that could have negative, and channel them into something positive."
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