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A new T/PAC director rolls up her sleeves.

Mary Ann Ingenthron, executive director of the Tucson/Pima Arts Council since August, is good people.

That's the word on the street, and that's the impression you get talking to her.

Ingenthron--whose mouth-filling last name is an instant enrichment to the cultural stew that is SoAz--picks her words as she talks, as well she might. She's dealing with politicians and granting agencies that you and I would have nightmares about were we to see them face to face.

On her other flank are artists and arts organizations--a complaining, resentful bunch at best. Worse, she's up against a permanently cranky, disenchanted populace. (See below.)

Ingenthron seems to know what she's contending with, having been around the public-arts block in El Paso and Oakland, Calif., among other places. All of which makes you sort of wonder about her judgement. Why would anyone with so much savvy walk into the everlasting churn of Tucson arts politics?

The answer is sheer belief. Ingenthron becomes almost unguarded when she talks about arts for kids. Her interest in what art could, can and has done for people started when she was teaching special education.

"Children who couldn't learn, couldn't be reached in any other way, responded to art. Soon I was using art--visual art, movement, music--all the time in the classroom. Not because I was 'for' art, but because I could see it work. That was a revelation.

"Then, in the late '70s, I was living in El Paso and working on a degree in public administration when the city set up its arts council. They hired me as a consultant and I was hooked. I loved El Paso and I was fascinated by what was going on. I liked the idea that the arts belonged to the full community," Ingenthron says.

"I believe that the support, development and accessibility of cultural life are public policy issues. It's a populist sort of view, but that's where the National Endowment for the Arts and the 1 percent for art laws came from.

"The public art movement dates from the early '70s, and it grew out of popular dissatisfaction with how our cities look, what they are. Once the housing developments all started looking the same, people started voting to fund public art. We all want something interesting, something satisfying, going on around us."

Ingenthron has only been running things for four months. Judging from T/PAC's history, the challenges ahead of her are formidable. For all its pure, changing light and clean topography, Tucson is not what you'd call a forgiving place.

T/PAC's essential function is dispensing money--$750,000 a year from the city, plus funds from other sources--and of every two or three Tucsonans, one thinks he or she deserves more of it than he or she gets. According to Ingenthron, T/PAC funded more than 80 local arts organizations and many individual artists last year. They're all basically dissatisfied.

Here's my little conflicted T/PAC story.

My son was born in Tucson in 1982, and he played Carnegie Hall June 5, 2000.

Not alone. He was there as an admittedly fortunate but hard-working member of the Tucson Philharmonia Youth Orchestra. (He was in the first row--principal second violin, if you must know--so he was fully visible from the box from whence my mother, my husband and I lounged and gloated for two hours amid the gilt and red plush.) Much of youth-music-oriented Tucson was in New York on that improbable June night. We held up traffic outside the hall and we were happy people.

Youth-music-oriented Tucson is a minute constituency compared to b-ball-oriented Tucson, or optics-oriented Tucson, or even public-art-oriented Tucson. But we're there. We pay for music lessons and we vote. And we both love and revile the Tucson/Pima Arts Council.

My son--did I mention he played Carnegie Hall last year?--learned to play well with others long before he joined the Philharmonia, and well before he got to University High School and did four years in the orchestra there. Beginning in junior high, he belonged to Tucson Junior Strings, a non-profit youth orchestra program.

His violin teacher, Dennis Bourret, and Dennis' sainted wife, Anna, run TJS on a financial shoestring; I know because I was on the board for five years. Fees are rock-bottom, rehearsals happen in the bleak, linoleum-floored community rooms of obscure brick churches and no kid who can play has ever been turned away or excluded from a tour for monetary reasons. TJS fields the most diverse, together, amused and generally pleasant bunch of kids you'll ever hope to see.

Is this what you want for your kid? For your community? For your tax dollars? In a word, yes.

Well, back to my grudge against T/PAC. The council was granting TJS $6,000 annually the last few years, which wasn't much, but it helped keep the finance committee sane. Then, last spring, the total operating budget edged up over $100,000--we're talking more than 200 kids in six orchestras plus a summer camp, plus tours. TJS got creamed in "the granting process" because $104,000 in total funds popped the organization up into competition with groups grossing up to $1 million--like the Tucson Boys' Chorus, Arizona Theatre Company and the Tucson Symphony. We got a couple hundred bucks instead of $6,000 and just about died.

I'm only a taxpayer, and, I admit it, a zealot for my fusty little corner of Tucson life, but I'm representative of what Ingenthron is facing. Us Zonies don't trust our local institutions--the logical result of long, painful and very repetitive experience. It's impossible to not count 14 names on the T/PAC Web site's staff page.

So. How much goes into running workshops on how to get grants from T/PAC that, because it's been spent on salaries and overhead and grant-writing workshops, doesn't go to dinky, weirdly efficient community outfits like Tucson Junior Strings?

I want to know. Still, I'm grateful for the money TJS got over the years. Some kids who didn't have a dime but wanted to play got to. And my son, along with many of his friends, played Carnegie Hall. (Did I tell you this already?) One way or another, straight from the banks of the Santa Cruz to 57th Street.

It's not the NBA, but still.

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