Friday, December 26, 2008

Putting Wyoming's artists to work

President-elect Obama is getting torrents of advice from all quarters. Artists and arts administrators are getting into the act. I'm both (although most writers wear the "artist" label very loosely), so I'll offer double the usual two cents worth.

The Obama Transition team has asked all state governors for ideas on how to put people back to work. Lots of work to do, of course, after eight years of Republican looniness and neglect. Roads to repave and bridges to repair. National parks to upgrade and historic structures to save. Boost public transportation. Teach at-risk kids and feed the homeless. Cure the sick health care system. The "green" retooling of industry and energy. Big list, huge challenges.

The Obama team also asked governor's offices for plans on how to put artists to work. Gov Dave passed the question off to our bosses at State Parks and Cultural Resources, and they passed it on to us at the Arts Council. As the staff brainstormed ideas, the arts programs sponsored by Roosevelt's Works progress Administration (WPA) kept popping into my head. State guides written by real writers such as Zora Neale Hurston in Florida and Vardis Fisher in Idaho (and some written by hacks). Mural painted in public buildings from Torrington to Kemmerer in Wyoming -- and all across the U.S. Great photos by Dorothea Lange.

On Dec. 26, opera director and Harvard arts fellow Thor Steingraber wrote an interesting op-ed piece in the Boston Globe, "How the Arts can Nourish a Struggling Nation." Not all of it bears repeating, as he has a rather simplistic (and outdated) view of the power of the National Endowment for the Arts. But he does offer a short history of what two former presidents did for the arts:

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt recognized the combined power of American productivity and creativity. Between 1935 and 1943, his Works Progress Administration put 8 million Americans to work. Under the same umbrella, construction workers and engineers built the nation's physical infrastructure, while writers, painters, and performers constructed the nation's cultural foundations. Buildings and bridges, murals and sculptures sprung up in public places around the nation.

It was John F. Kennedy whose commitment to the arts paved the way for the formation of the National Endowment. Kennedy's vision of an America in which ingenuity was championed above all else was not reserved to space travel alone. The arts were included too: "If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him."

President-elect Obama, by seeking ways to make artists a part of a new New Deal, seems to have the same sort of vision. He is asking the state's leaders to provide ideas on retooling the economy. An an agent of change, he's serious about how ALL of us (even pointy-headed artists) can be part of the equation.

You have to be tough to be an artist in Wyoming. It's not a cheap place to live, and jobs are few and far between. There are no cool arts enclaves where artists can band together and support each other. While Jackson, Lander, Laramie and Sheridan all have lively communities of writers, artists, and performers, there are not many outlets to actually sell your art. Yes, all of us have access to the Internet, and many sell work on their web sites. But there are millions of arts web sites. The competition isn't just the gallery down the street -- it's all the galleries from Cheyenne, Wyoming, to Chiba, Japan.

The best way to put artists back to work is have them team up with their communities on arts projects and arts education. This may be a shocker to you, but many people who work in the Powder River Basin coal fields and the oil patch around Pinedale do not see art as their main priority. But you'd be surprised at how many are engaged in the arts themselves or through their families. I could bore you with examples all day, but I'll let this one suffice (for now). I was conducting an Arts Council grants training session on a cold January night in the Lander library. In attendance were a handful of leaders of arts organizations and a few artists.

Two men in their thirties walked in and sat down at the back. Big guys, looked like former linemen for Lander High. They were quiet through most of my long, boring presentation. But we learned a lot about them during the Q&A session. One of them used to work in the oil patch but now made his living sculpting with a chainsaw. The other still worked on the rigs, but had an entire scrapbook of beautiful horsehair ropes and bridles that he made. "I want to get off the rigs in the worst way," he said. And I believed him. I gave him lots of info on the Arts Council and the Wyoming Business Council. He was already having some success selling his wares locally. While his buddy was carving logs and dead trees into totems and rodeo cowboys all over the county, the horsehair bridle man was struggling. He may still be on the rigs, and he may not. But I guarantee he's still creating. Something he just has to do. Which is something all of us writers and performers and painters understand.

How to connect artists and communities? It's something we've been doing with some success in Wyoming for more than 40 years. Artists need to be in their communities and of their communities. A new WPA can serve to reconnect us in a time of disconnection. It won't be easy and, sometimes, we'll be butting heads. Artists see the world in new and imaginative ways. That can cause controversy. Forget about "culture wars." That's been a dead-end street for all of us. Let artists work within communities as they create their art. And hope all this new energy can spark debates about our hopes and fears in the rocky times ahead.

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