Separation of Art and State

Posted on 01 May 2009

Many believe religion and politics shouldn’t mix, but in Sag Harbor some believe art and politics should also be separated. After last year’s school vote, a group of residents complained that housing the student art show and the voting area side by side in the gym influenced voters to approve the budget.

Sag Harbor citizen Robert Nicholson sent a letter to the New York State Commission of Investigation on November 11, 2008, detailing this concern.

“I had to make my way through the entire length of the gym, which was displaying student works of art and other displays which clearly intended to convince voters that the school budget is good,” wrote Nicholson of his voting experience. “Teachers … point out some of the works, some voters don’t agree and resent being subjected to this kind of subtle electioneering.”

Amongst the school board candidates, the issue of whether or not student art qualifies as electioneering is still up for debate. School board candidate Ed Drohan brought up the issue on behalf of angered voters at a recent school board meeting. Although Drohan declined to give his personal opinion, he said some voters felt the art “put the best foot forward for the school” and was “unfair.”

Rival candidate Gregg Schiavoni, however, believes the exhibit didn’t influence the budget vote.

“For as long as I can remember, [the art show] was there … I don’t think having it in with the voting polls favored voting for or against the budget as some would say,” said Schiavoni. “I personally have not heard anyone come up to me and complain.”

Current school board president Walter Wilcoxen said over the past year the board received less than 10 objections to hosting the voting area and art show side by side, but added that this year the school will separate the two using room dividers.

“We wanted to level the playing field … and avoid an argument … [Using room dividers] is a way to get away from the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ issue,” opined Wilcoxen. “Voting should take precedence.”

School board candidate Elena Loreto said separating the two areas was a “great idea,” and felt having the voting booths in the front of the gym provided easier access for handicapped voters — although the voting area was in the front of the gym last year. She said that the art show might have influenced votes in the past.

“Some allege that the art show is an attempt to influence votes [in an area] where there shouldn’t be any outside influences over the vote,” said Sag Harbor School District Superintendent John Gratto. “Everyone will still have the opportunity to see the artwork and those who don’t won’t have to see it.”

Gratto added that he felt most voters enter the voting area with an understanding of which way they will vote. In an effort to be more compliant with voter concerns, he noted that poll watchers will have designated tables to the side of the voting area. Previously, poll watchers from various school groups set-up camp in the hallway leading into the gym.

The school budget vote will be held at the Pierson gym on May 19.

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2 Responses to “Separation of Art and State”

  1. Bruce says:

    Several years ago, I went to the Sag Harbor Elementary School gym to vote on a school budget. They actually had about 50 students inside the gym, sitting on bleachers watching you vote. This was during school hours. I found it totally without taste to use these children as pawns by special interest groups.

  2. Pierson Alum says:

    Perhaps the best thing we can do in this situation is to compare this to other voting experiences. Why do we make the decisions we do in a voting booth? Usually, we choose a policy or elected official that is not only aligned with our political views, but also aims to contribute to the greater good. The most used method, and probably the best method of judging policy or politicians, is to do it based on past performance.

    For national political elections, campaign committees spew out questions of policy direction, questions that all Americans are affected by. On the other hand, the scope of effects for a school budget vote is not evenly distributed. The ones who truly benefit most from the passage of a school budget vote, the ones most directly affected by this policy, are the same ones that can’t vote.

    Furthermore, we only truly see the effects of a stagnant budget many years later: fewer Sag Harbor residents will have the financial means and motivation to seek a job or a life elsewhere if they so please. Removing funding from programs such as the art department or music department may negatively affect self-esteem and academic achievement, which has been shown to correlate with productive creative thought. Schooling should be enabling, not disabling. By proudly presenting the work of students, voters see first hand some of the brilliant work done by these pupils whose community wishes only to see a lower number on their tax returns.

    By openly displaying the benefits of rich schooling now, we can cast aside the apathy that can result after graduating from Pierson with little or nothing to show for it. Let’s make the future of Sag Harbor brighter tomorrow by recognizing today all the good our schools do for Sag Harbor’s youngest and most impressionable.

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