When U.S. Sen. Michael Enzi, R-Wyo., passed unexpectedly this summer, our state and our nation lost one of the most ardent supporters of true democracy, not to mention humanities, arts and culture. I cherish my many memories of traveling to Washington, D.C. to visit with Mike and his wife, Diana – herself a vigorous champion for the arts and humanities.
It seems that anyone with a knowledge of the great senator knew about his 80/20 philosophy. That is, we as a country agree on 80% of most issues, and that we can and should work together to find solutions for the remaining 20% that may be a bit more contentious.
His belief was that we can all work together to move forward, to reach across the aisle, to find shared goals, to seek thoughtful compromise.
“It is all about focusing on what you can get done,” he once said, “and not focusing on the points of disagreement.”
And when it came to getting things done, Sen. Enzi certainly understood how crucial arts and humanities are, especially as a tool for strengthening our communities and democracy.
As the senator said in 2019, “Art is a great way to see how innovative Wyoming really is. It does not just have to be painting, but it can be wood carving, writing, music and much more. Folks do not have to look far to see Wyoming’s creative side, because art comes from all corners of our state.”
In 2005, Sen. Enzi was one of the original founders of the bipartisan Senate Cultural Caucus, a group that still exists today. This combined arts and humanities caucus was a welcome counterpart to the Congressional Humanities Caucus in maintaining support at the national level for a variety of the country’s cultural endeavors.
The continued intention of the caucus is to highlight the work of the three primary federal cultural agencies: the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
Like much of his work in Washington D.C, Enzi’s support came in the form of quiet, behind-the scenes action that created results, getting the work done that needed to be done.
In support of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts, Enzi asked his fellow senators to support funding levels for the two foundations, writing that “We can do much more to emphasize the broad array of activities that contribute in such a significant way to the cultural identity of our country.”
As the Senate grew more contentious in recent years, Enzi – as chair of the powerful Senate Budget Committee – assured cultural agencies that funding was safe under his watch. In fact, he spoke to all statewide humanities councils at the annual Humanities on the Hill reception – a major accomplishment to have a Republican speak at such an event, let alone the head of the budget committee.
Enzi was a supporter of arts and humanities long before becoming a senator – whether taking an instrumental role in getting an arts center in his hometown of Gillette or actively supporting the Wyoming Arts Council, even providing a keynote address on their 40th anniversary.
He knew and said that local art is an important piece of the puzzle in our Wyoming economy. As the senator himself noted, the cultural industry offers about 11,000 jobs in Wyoming and makes up nearly 3% of the state’s economy.
Wyoming Humanities itself has a mission of using the humanities to strengthen our democracy, enhance the Wyoming narrative and promote engaged communities. We believe that Senator Enzi would agree that the value of humanities, culture and arts are part of the larger 80% that we all agree upon. Democracy can only thrive where culture is allowed to prosper.
Cultural organizations nationally and statewide mourn the passing of this great senator and advocate for the arts and humanities, and we all look forward to those who will allow his legacy to flourish across Wyoming.