Remembering Mary Bain

Maureen K. Robinson

Mary Bain, who was Sidney Yates' longtime political and staff director, died recently. She was ninety-five.

Yates and Mary were an unbelievable pair. They were both incredibly skilled politicians but also deeply committed to the role and value of cultural institutions and the creative spirit. They had a confidence and matter of fact acceptance of the need for government to be a partner in the great enterprise of preserving, transmitting, and creating art, and believed enthusiastically and sincerely that it was in the national interest to sustain these things and make them possible in every corner of country.

The hearings that they held during the infamous Reagan/David Stockman budget years were astonishing — from the director of the Otter Tail County Historical Society to Leontyne Price — who sang rather than testified. I remember Robert Rauschenberg attempting to convey how impossible it was as a cultural commissioner of New York City to figure out how to apportion cuts in a budget of equally essential things. Did you feed the lions to the tigers? he asked. Or another artist who had carefully calculated the cost per inch of a recently approved nuclear submarine and suggested that by making it a foot shorter the entire budget for NEA could be restored, and he said: there would be little impact on the sub or national security because as we all know bodies submerged in water appear larger than they are.

Mary was at the happy heart of all that, the kindest soul to those she saw on the side of the angels, and at the same time, one of the toughest-minded women on the planet. Watching Mary at work in those days gave you faith in politics and public service — even lately when that faith is not always rewarded, the example of Yates and Mary is a check on easy cynicism.

Her death will not appear as a national item but for those who have worked in the arts in the last twenty-five years or so, it will mark a real passing.

Maureen K. Robinson
August 9, 2006
Spontaneous email message in response to Mary Bain's death.

Historical note: Congressman Sidney Yates was a long-time member of the U.S. House from Chicago. Mary ran his campaigns and ruled his Washington office. He was the chair of the House Appropriations Committee's Subcommittee on Interior and Related Agencies — at the time, the funding home of the NEA, NEH, then Institute of Museum Services, the National Park Service (as part of the Interior Department), and the National Trust. One day his committee would hold hearings on surface mining as part of Interior's Bureau of Mining, and next it would be the arts. The subcommittee's members were all from states and districts with interests other than the arts and humanities, but proved game when the arts community began to show up on their doorsteps and in their hearing room during the Reagan administration and beyond. Yates's willingness to provide a forum for testimony in defense of the NEA also influenced the counterpart appropriations subcommittee in the Senate — much tougher nuts to crack, but also finally both game and supportive.

— Maureen K. Robinson