Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Shape-shifting in the arts world and in Yellowstone

The world of arts funding is changing dramatically. The federal-state-local government infrastructure that began with the establishment in 1965 of the National Endowment for the Arts is morphing into something new and different. And this may be a good thing.

I work in that infrastructure, in both the state and federal level, for 20 years. I am 60. My brain and my aesthetics should be as calcified as my knees. But as is the case with many of my colleagues in arts administration, I am being challenged to look at the arts with new eyes.

I mentioned “colleagues.” I have fewer of those these days as state arts agencies are killed off by Tea Party-inspired governors and state legislatures. The Kansas Arts Commission got the ax this year. South Dakota almost disappeared. Nevada and Arizona were cut to the bone.

This budget cutting frenzy is inspired by deficits and political ideology. Wyoming has a budget surplus but our arts agency has been told to cut spending – or else. Wyoming is as red as red can be. We’re selling the crap out of coal and shale oil and natural gas (some of which is actually ancient crap) and trona and wind -- and the gubment is raking in the dough through excise taxes. One can only assume that politics trumps reality.

One could get all bent out of shape about this state of affairs. [Pause for blood-curdling scream]  Or, maybe, I can put my energy into alternatives. Change is good, right? Didn’t a presidential candidate say that long time ago in a galaxy far far away?

I will spend time on these pages exploring arts organizations and funders and artists and writers who are looking at this world in new ways.

I came across a great one today. United States Artists has been around for several years. The help artists, writers and performers raise project funding online.

The artists first must pass muster as a recipient of an award from one of USA’s partnering organizations, such as Wyoming Arts Council, Idaho Arts Commission, Lannan Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, etc.

Artist Pearl C. Hsiung, L.A. needed to raise $5,200 for her multimedia project, “Yellow Stoner: Shape-shifting in Yellowstone National Park.” Under “perks,” Hsiung promised $50 donors that she would send e-mail updates of the project. For a $100 donations, you get e-mail updates and an actual postcard sent from YNP. Donors of $250 (limited to 20) receive e-mail updates, a postcard from YNP and a limited edition, signed and numbered, hand-pulled 9x12-inch “Yellow Stoner” screen print created for this fund-raiser. Those who donate $500 (limited to 10) get all of the above, thank you credits, and a signed DVD copy of the finished video piece. The high rollers -- $1,000 donors – get all of the above plus a party.

Hsiung ended up raising 107 percent of her goal. The money pays for travel costs and renting a camera. She plans to be in Yellowstone in late August. The light will be good and many of the tourists (but not all) will be gone.

I write at length about this project for several reasons: 1. It’s innovative and interesting; 2. It’s happening in Wyoming; 3. Hsiung had to earn her artist creds though a public or private arts org to qualify for USA Projects; 4. A number of micro-lending individuals thought enough of the project to fund it.

This latter point is important. True, a kitschy postcard sent from the Old Faithful Inn is a keepsake. But the philanthropists in the $250-and-up categories get something concrete for their money. Call it an investment. That poster or video may be worth something some day. Even the thank you creds on the DVD might lead to other projects and investments in the arts world. At least you get bragging rights when Pearl shows her video and you’re listed as a free-spending arts patron.

Diego: “Thanks for the commission, Mr. Rockefeller.”
Nelson: “You’re welcome. Now tear down that commie mural.”

You may be venturing into unknown country with arts patronage.

I digress. No matter what the future holds, Hsiung wins. Her project gets funding. More people know about her and her work (including this arts administrator in Cheyenne, WY). She’s learned some valuable marketing skills.

And if you’re wandering around Yellowstone the next couple weeks and see a young artist and cameraperson surrounded by shape shifters, you’ll know who it is. Say hi. 

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