In the world of the arts, sometimes just one name is sufficient to identify a singular sensation, a driving force, a ubiquitous presence and a vision for good. Oprah. Barbra. Beyoncé. Cher. Busy.
The mantra that “you’ve gotta get involved with what Busy’s involved with” was bandied about the Francis Scott Key Auditorium at St. John’s College in Annapolis on Valentine’s Day as Maryland arts maven Peggy Sue “Busy” Graham received the 2017 Sue Hess Maryland Arts Advocate of the Year Award as well as a standing ovation from the crowd there to celebrate Maryland Arts Day.
“Maryland Citizens for the Arts was born 40 years ago today,” noted Hess, MCA’s founder and one of the state’s staunchest arts advocates, just before introducing Graham and kicking off the largest gathering of arts professionals in the state. “And Busy has been active throughout Maryland for the past four decades.
“Busy has been a champion of the arts,” Hess added, and noted that as a parent, musician, fundraiser and activist, Graham has become a key player in numerous programs that benefit students, artists and educators, working tirelessly to integrate art and culture into everyday life and put creative expression within reach of even marginalized populations. “She fully embodies the spirit of a true arts advocate.”
The Sue Hess Award is the latest of many arts accolades for Graham, the founding director of Carpe Diem Arts whose resume reads like a primer on how to bring the arts to every corner of the state. She received a Life Impact Award from the Montgomery County Executive and the Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County five years ago, the Community Award for Excellence at the Executive’s Ball for the Arts and Humanities in 2004, and assorted kudos and thanks from groups large and small. Yet Graham prefers to be behind the spotlight so she can shine it on artists in the community—ones she said need to be fairly compensated for making art, not hustling to make ends meet with a patchwork of jobs.
As a fundraiser, board member, outreach facilitator, producer, presenter and volunteer, Graham knows firsthand the power of the arts—and the benefits that come when underserved audiences and artists come together to create, to heal and to enhance the quality of life. “We’ve seen so many compelling examples,” she said. “Real breakthroughs—with youth and women in corrections facilities, hospital patients, middle schoolers, seniors with dementia, the homeless, children and adults with special needs, wounded warriors.
“As I like to say, ‘The lights go on when the arts walk in!’”
Graham grew up immersed in the arts. Her parents shared an avocation as arts advocates, and peace and justice activists; her aunt is the widow of jazz great Charles Mingus; her eclectic childhood included giving a tour of Carthage to Paul McCartney and his then-girlfriend Jane Asher while the bass-playing Beatle drove them around in a VW Beetle.
She segued from education to arts management in the early 1980s, when she was the director of the Arthur Morgan School in North Carolina, where she also taught French and dance. “I was a huge fan of Malcolm Dalglish and Grey Larsen,” Graham recalled. “I had their first album, ‘Banish Misfortune’—the first folk album to sell a million copies—and I invited them to come do a performance for our Arthur Morgan School, and they came. We got to talking and they said, ‘Listen, if you ever want to go in to arts management, let us know. We could sure use the help.” Soon, she was managing artists and creating concert series, a career that culminated in a stint as director of the Institute of Musical Traditions in the early 1990s.
When Graham became a parent, she began to realize that even when schools had money to spend on cultural arts programs, they often lacked the understanding of how best to bring together local artists and effective, appropriate arts programming. That led to the “aha!” moment in which the quintessential arts outreach program, Class Acts Arts (now known as Artivate), was born in 1995, providing more than 2,000 performances, workshops and residencies and reaching an estimated 250,000 residents each year. That, in turn, led to even more programs designed to push Graham’s signature multigenerational, multicultural, community-centered events activities: Jump Start with the Arts, Ukes on the Move and Carpe Diem Arts, the last named for the Latin phrase meaning “Seize the Day.”
“I will often ‘seize the day’ without having the means to do it,” laughed Graham. “All too often putting the cart before the horse with this blind optimism which sometimes works and oftentimes does not.”
That’s her spirit: push forward and find a way. But recognition, like the Sue Hess Maryland Arts Advocate of the Year Award, is something Graham knows can benefit her arts programs by raising their profile. “I was quite thrilled and very grateful,” she said. “It was actually the Talbot County Arts Council that nominated me for the award.”
She noted, with gratitude, that the MCA works closely not only with her own organizations but also with many others statewide, lobbying for high-level funding for the arts. With private funding, for example, she can guarantee that all Talbot County schools receive 100 percent of matching funds for Arts-in-Education programs. “Anything the schools ask for,” she said, “we pledge to fund.”
Which seems like a lot—but Graham envisions a world where she can do more, a world where, through arts advocacy, everyone benefits through the arts.
“It would be such a boon, and a wish come true, if we could draw on the resources that I know are out there,” Graham said. “So that we can provide gainful employment for these extraordinary artists, while also meeting the needs of our communities.”
Right now she is Busy, making it happen.