Utah celebrated its Statehood Centennial on 4 January 1996 with great aplomb. This year, it has found another good reason to celebrate again! The month of July 1997 marked the sesquicentennial of the "Days of '47"24 July 1847, when a band of persecuted Mormons, who had left Nauvoo, Illinois, a year earlier, reached the Salt Lake Valley. As the caravan was descending what is now called Emigration Canyon, their spiritual leader and prophet, Brigham Young, who had to be carried to the high lookout point since he was suffering from a fever, is remembered to have gazed at the panoramic but barren valley and told his followers, "This is the right place." Today the place is lush green with nature's bounteous growth coaxed by a hardworking people and even greener this decade because of a thriving economy.
Myth and legend associated with the historic Mormon trek are legion here. The sesquicentennial has inspired a spurt of new creativity—in literature, performing and visual arts. Both the government of Utah and its people, 70% of whom are Mormons, have always encouraged art, so it seems unnatural that both are ambivalent toward the National Endowment for the Arts.
I was recently in Park City, attending the Writers at Work week-long workshop-readings, when the United States Congress whittled down to ten percent the ninety-nine million dollar budget of the National Endowment for the Arts in preparation to close down the agency next year. Just as quickly, the Senate reinstated NEA funding, at least for the next five years. Of the three congressmen from Utah, only one supports the NEA, while both the senators are committed to the agency.
This split between Utah's congressmen and senators on the NEA is reflected even in the people of Utah. Most Utahns, especially Mormons, are encouraged to write journals to record family history, play an instrument, participate in choral singing or learn to paint or sculpt. There are probably more big patrons of the arts in Utah per capita than in any other state in the country.
So one wonders why so many Utahns view the NEA as an agency that would most likely pollute the artistic excellence of the state by funding art projects that do not reflect the "truth" they believe in or the values they live by. Recognizing that NEA grants add up to no more than 68¢ per capita, they feel it's an amount they can do without to ensure "true" art.
Leaving aside the larger question of what is "true" art, if there is one, I have been asking myself why indeed do we need the NEA. What benefits, if any, does it bring? Can we really do without it?
Philosophically, it seems impossible that we, as a nation, should even think of killing the NEA. A thriving NEA is in our national interest. Historically, nations and civilizations have been judged by the superiority of their arts and the advances of their scientific discoveries. Like the National Science Foundation for scientific research, NEA is an instrument that stimulates and nurtures national art. The very existence of the NEA is an affirmation of our government's pledge to be a patron of the arts. It is independent of private funding.
Without NEA support, arts such as symphonies, ballets, and operas would suffer most, for NEA funding enables these arts hauts to survive and reach out to the under-populated areas of our states. This art is not for the elite—it's for all of us. It is valuable especially for young people who are known to learn concepts in the social and natural sciences faster when taught through an art component. Those who are interested in doing some form of art or craft in their leisure time are likely to keep out of trouble as well. Our government has been traditionally proactive in providing amenities and educational opportunities to all its peoples—it simply cannot afford to take away its sponsorship of the arts.
The NEA and its state agency, the Utah Arts Council, have enabled Weber Studies to offer honoraria to its contributors in its efforts to generate, attract, and publish good writing in order to give it back to its readership, more than half of which is in the state of Utah.
Grants from Ogden's Junior E. and Blanche B. Rich Foundation have enabled Weber Studies to present the Dr. O. Marvin Lewis Award, which comes with a $300 cash prize, in rotation to the best poetry, fiction, and essay published in its pages in the previous three years. This is the fifth year of such recognitions. This time it seemed appropriate for me to claim the privilege of "Editor's Choice." Besides, it was good for me to experience the agony of making the final choice of the winning fiction.
As editor, I read manuscripts and edit or proofread the formatted version of an issue, often bespoiling the clean look of the pages with final corrections before it goes to the press. After the printed issues are delivered, I hold and flip through one with some trepidation and a lot of tenderness. Rarely do I actually read the journal in its printed version. Rereading the fiction published in the last nine issues to determine the Dr. O. Marvin Lewis Award winner was a good experience—the flow of the printed lines on the pages pleased me, as did the feel of the journal.
To read the "editor's choice" winning fiction, order a copy of the Utah Centennial Celebration special issue, 13.1 (Winter 1996) by sending a check for $8 made out to Weber Studies and mail it to Weber State University, 1214 University Circle, Ogden, UT 84408-1214.
This Fall 1997 issue is pretty darned good. And it has received as much editorial care from its team of editors.