A Politician Who Won With Arts Supporters : Michael Lomax: A Politician Who Won With Atlanta’s Arts Backers

Michael Lomax is perhaps the only politician to claim he won office on a base of support in the arts community. His testimony to the political power of the arts--on the day cultural policies went unmentioned at the final presidential debate--made his position seem even more unique.

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the big campaign debate wasn’t about prison furloughs but about whether artists were given too much money?” said Lomax, who chairs the Fulton County (Ga.) Commission, which encompasses most of Atlanta.

Keynote speaker at the annual meeting of the California Confederation of the Arts, the state’s arts advocacy organization, Lomax explained how he first won a commissioner’s seat in 1978. (The Atlanta commission functions like a county board of supervisors.)

Hoping for support from those he’d worked with when he was Atlanta’s appointed cultural chief from 1975-78, the black Democrat sought color-blind backing and got it. Typically, he said, in a county where 63% of the voters are white, black elected officials get about 15% of the vote. Lomax said he got at least twice that much.


“I don’t think you all realize how politically powerful the arts can be,” the Los Angeles native and Atlanta mayoral aspirant told an audience of about 240 at Costa Mesa’s Westin South Coast Plaza Hotel. “The arts cut through racial, economic, social and religious barriers.”

This year’s two-day confederation meeting, the 13th annual Congress of the Arts, was designed to help members assume leadership roles in the arts and become more politically involved in their communities.

For the next fiscal year, beginning in July, confederation officials are planning a statewide drive to win a $6-million addition to the $15.5-million budget of the California Arts Council. Never has Gov. George Deukmejian increased the council’s budget by more than about $1.5 million in any year.

Lomax listed the ways he thought the arts can and should enhance community life--and thus become a platform for political office.


“The arts can bring life after dark and on the weekends into our central cities so people will want to live and work there,” he said.

They are good for tourism, municipal identity and “cohesiveness” too, he said, citing last August’s first National Black Arts Festival. Lomax spearheaded the event in Atlanta.

“Black and white Atlantans sat together in a park, listening to a symphony orchestra,” he said. And the nine-day, $1.5-million multimedia event drew about 500,000 people from across the country as well as worldwide publicity.

But the most profound importance of the arts, Lomax said, is that they can turn destructive behavior into creative, constructive action.

“Over 40% of blacks in Atlanta live below the poverty line,” he said. Nationwide, rates of teen pregnancies, drug abuse and crime are frighteningly high.

“But beyond every one of these grim, self-destructive, pathological statistics, there’s a human being who would (have done) something more creative and constructive than destroying themselves or someone else” if they had been taught to dance, sing, act or paint, he said.

“Wouldn’t it be so much better if we recognized that investing more in the potential of human beings might pay such tremendous dividends?”

Lomax didn’t cite data indicating that arts activities decrease crime or other social ills. However, William Cleveland, who manages a California fine arts prison program, said in an interview that recent studies show that two years after their release, 30.8% of parolees who had been in the arts program had returned to prison compared to a 58% return rate for inmates who had not.


Only one question from the audience seemed to cast a momentary pall on the positive impression of Lomax’s speech. Eleanor Dickinson, national vice president of Artists Equity Assn., argued that politicians don’t care about the votes of artists or other arts-loving constituents.

Dickinson said she recently invited about 80 national, state and local elected officials to discuss their parties’ position on the arts on a cable television program broadcast in the Bay Area and Pasadena. No one answered her letters, she said.

Lomax responded that the politicians who don’t see the political power of the arts “are the politicians who won’t be in office in the next century.”