Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Artists and their communities

During his campaign, Pres. Obama talked about the importance of the arts, calling for a young “artist corps” to work in low-income schools and neighborhoods; affordable health care and tax benefits for artists; and efforts at cultural diplomacy, such as sending artist-ambassadors to other countries.

And according to a story in the Sunday New York Times:

Arts groups, meanwhile, are urging federal departments like Transportation or Labor to factor culture into their financing. A transportation enhancement program, for example, could pay artists for related public artworks; through the Labor Department displaced arts professionals could receive new training to stay in the work force. “Every one of these places is a vehicle through which the money is going to flow, and we want to make sure the arts is part of it,” said Bob Lynch, director of Americans for the Arts.

But what arts executives are most eager for, they say, is additional direct financing and a president who sends the message that art is important. The country’s 100,000 nonprofit arts groups employ some six million people and contribute $167 billion to the economy annually, Mr. Lynch said. “I don’t think of this as a bailout for the arts,” he added. “It’s an economic investment in the arts.”

Bill Ivey is director of the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy at Vanderbilt University and a former NEA chairman. “There has never been an administration that looked at the cultural agencies as a partner in advancing big, overarching policy objectives,” he said in an interview. “That’s a real unfulfilled
opportunity and I think this administration is poised to do a better job.”

Arts groups said that they would seek to drive home the idea that culture is an economic engine. “Arts jobs are jobs,” said Marc A. Scorca, president and chief executive of Opera America. “We see opera companies cutting health care, administrative staff — these people are taxpayers and rent payers and mortgage payers, just like every other employee.”

“Arts jobs are jobs.” I like that quote. Six million people work in the arts and contribute billions to the economy. We could create more jobs in the arts, and that would be a start. What we really need are artists living and working in their communities. That means artists throwing pots in the garage or writing poetry in the garret -- and being actively involved in their communities. That’s Civics 101 stuff, those high school precepts that many of us have forgotten. It means engaging your neighbors on the arts. It also means finding ways to incorporate arts in the days to day doings of your town. Most arts groups in Wyoming were started by artists who learned budgeting and organizing and grant-writing skills via OJT. Most were -- and still are -- volunteers.

Last week, my son and I visited the Roosevelt Row Artists’ District in Phoenix. It’s been 13-some years since I was in downtown Phoenix. More buildings have gone up downtown, and the city is now serviced by a slick new light-rail system. The Arizona Arts Commission at Fifth Avenue and Roosevelt is a few blocks away from a light-rail stop. The AAC offices are in an historic building and used to be surrounded by derelict buildings and a few small arts organizations. People now actually live and work in the area.

East along Roosevelt is the artists’ district. We visited its Third Friday open house. Artists live and work out of old bungalows that a decade ago were abandoned wrecks and crack houses. There was a steady stream of people investigating the shops and galleries. The big crowds come on First Friday events, when vendors line the streets and local bands perform.

Greg Esser directs the Roosevelt Row district and was instrumental in getting it off the ground. In the beginning, he and his fellow artists spent a lot of time dodging crack dealers and deciphering arcane zoning regulations. These days they’re attending city meetings to find out how big budget cuts will affect the district. They also took time out to fight the city’s plan to build a football stadium right on top of their heads. The stadium was eventually built west of the city in Glendale. It was in the news last weekend as the Cardinals played for the NFC championship. Lots of Philadelphia fans in town for the big game, dressed in their greenish jerseys. I saw them crowding into the light rail and jostling each other in downtown bars. Economic development.

Cities love sports money almost as much as they like building new stadiums for fat-cat owners. A whale of a stadium can bring economic development to your neighborhood for the eight NFL home games and two NFL home pre-season games. There are college football games, too, and sometimes mega-concerts. But on most nights, the desert wind is whistling through the empty corporate skyboxes. Some of them will be empty next season, abandoned by bereft tycoons who laid off employees while investing in skyboxes and gilded umbrella stands.

The big irony in all this? Many of those same tycoons supported symphonies and art museums and other big-box arts entities. How will those places fare during this recession? The first thing I heard on my rental car radio in Phoenix was the governor's office announcing a $1.6 billion budget shortfall. The AAC had to slash its programs for individual artists -- for starters.

Once a city's residential and business district is established, it not only has activity 24/7, but it generates energy and tax income. It also keeps down crime. Sure, that tattooed guy with the nose rings and purple hair may look like someone you don’t want your daughter to bring home for dinner. But if you ask, you’ll discover he’s a working artist, a guy who renovated his old home on the Row, pays a mortgage, works by day in his studio and as a barista at night. He’s making your city a better place.

That goes for all towns and cities, whatever the size. I’ll have more to say about that in later posts.

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