Saturday, November 12, 2011

It's a great time to be working in the arts!

Me: It's a great time to be working in the arts.

You: The heck you say. Local, state and national arts budgets are on the chopping block. The Kansas governor eliminated its state arts agency. K-12 arts teachers are being laid off. Music and visual arts and poetry graduates can't find jobs. Arts orgs and galleries and museums and performance spaces everywhere are crashing and burning.

Me: As I said, it's a great time to be working in the arts.

You: No hope for a fool.

Me: Or is there?

I'm flying high on the arts after a two-day meeting in Fort Collins, Colo. Arts types from nine states came to town to brainstorm ideas for the Arts Incubator of the Rockies (AIR.). This multi state effort to turbo-charge the region's artists and arts orgs and was spearheaded by a triumvirate of Ft Collins entities: Beet Street, the City of Fort Collins and Colorado State University School of the Arts.

It's a great thing when an arts organization, a city government and a major land-grant university get together to forge a plan for the future. A rare thing, too. Together they applied to the National Endowment for the Arts and received a $100,000 Our Town grant. Another major step. And then they invited their neighbors from WY, CO, NM, UT, ID, MT, NE, NV, SD and ND to town to talk about next steps.

So we did.

Fort Collins can brag about its arts and culture scene. This city of 140,000 sprawls along the Poudre River Valley and butts up against the Front Range of the Rockies. There's a big "A" up on the mountain that gets a fresh coat of whitewash every year from CSU students. The "A" stands for the "Agricultural" in Colorado Agricultural College and later Colorado A&M. Ag continues to be a big deal on campus and in the community. It stands for both flora and fauna, such as the large fauna investigated and studied and treated each year in the CSU Veterinary Program, one of the best in the U.S. "A" and "M" prompt students from all over the world to study water hydrology in Fort Collins. Water ministers from many parched Middle Eastern, Asian and African countries learned their trade at CSU. The university is home to the Colorado Seed Laboratory, where the genomes of the West's native plants are explored and safeguarded.

CSU's "A" and "M" creds are well-established.

But these days the "A" up on the hill could stand for "Arts."

During our two days in Fort Collins, we toured arts facilities. One belongs to the U, the renovated Fort Collins High School ("Go Lambkins!") that now houses the University Center for the Arts, or UCA. When I attended CSU from 1988-91, my little family lived in a little house just down the street from FCHS. My wife and I and our young son played catch on the football field which was a half-block from the house. I dodged student drivers on my daily walks to campus. There was that one Saturday morning when we found a frat boy from Phi Zappa Krappa passed out on our lawn. Apparently he had become disoriented after a frat bash and had settled in for a rejuvenating nap on our not-so-lush lawn. Our son awakened him with a pointy stick.

The frat house is still there. The high school is now the arts school. Our tour guide on Thursday was Jennifer Clary, a graduate of both the old FCHS and the new CSU arts school. She now works at the UCA. So it goes.

We watched a faculty chamber group as they warmed up in the Organ Recital Theatre for an upcoming concert. We saw the student Symphonia rehearse for its performance of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. Great acoustics in the 550-seat Edna Rizley Griffin Concert Hall. Great facilities overall for music and dance and theatre. Also a fine visual arts museum.

As I watched the tattooed woman violinist and the viola player in his black hoodie bow their way through various symphony movements, I couldn't help but wonder what they'll be doing in 10 years. Playing in a major symphony? Bloody unlikely. Playing in a smaller symphony or community band? Possibly. Teaching music at the K-12 level. That's probable, although too many students look at education as a "fall-back" occupation if music performance doesn't work out. While some of them will be good teachers, others will be second-rate or worse and resentful that they're not making money in their chosen pursuit of music.

During our meeting, CSU School of the Arts Co-Director Dr. Todd Queen quoted from a Julliard study that found that only 10 percent of music school students stay in the industry after graduation. It's tough out there for a musician -- we all know that. It's tough out there for a poet and a dancer and a painter. That's why so many parents (this one included) attempt (with limited success) to steer their children into more practical avenues.

But what if there were other ways to an artist to make a living as an artist? What if we could shift away from the paradigm of "starving artist?"

That is a major goal of AIR.

Arts students need help with the big "B" of "business." They need to find new ways to promote themselves as artists which then will free up time for them to do their art. This is nothing new. Van Gogh painted up a storm but couldn't make a living -- his brother Theo had to keep him in bread and cheese. As a student in the CSU creative writing program, my goal was to write and learn how to write better. I was a teaching assistant too -- a little teaching experience couldn't hurt, right?

But in my third year, after a series of unsuccessful interviews for teaching jobs, I realized that I needed to reassess my goals. I asked the following question: "Just what the hell am I going to do now?" So I looked at all of my career assets and found that I could run or work for an arts organizations. Plenty of those around. My writing and corporate skills would come in handy. My time heading up the writers' committee on the CSU Fine Arts Series would be useful. Teaching skills, too -- I'd already taught at CSU and several community college writing courses in Fort Collins and Greeley.

It all added up to something. And I parlayed that something into 20 years working as an arts administrator at the state and federal level. I'm an acknowledged expert in my field. I've worked as a panelist and arts consultant to Colorado, Utah, Nevada, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kentucky, the Western States Arts Federation in Denver, etc. I've mentored many writers and later, as my job came to encompass all arts disciplines, I've assisted pianists, dancers, sculptors, rock musicians, painters, and so on.

But I have this sorrowful part of me that wishes now that, 20-some years ago, I had asked this question instead: "How can I make a living as a fiction writer?" That should have been my focus because writing is what I love. In the arts, it is all about you pursuing your passion. It also can be about forging a career in the arts world. Not just as a fall-back strategy but as something that a student does on purpose. It may include teaching but it very well may not.

Arts and beers and bikes are all players in
the new creative placemaking economy.
This is what I like about AIR: It addresses both of these tracks through workshops, classes, networking, coaching, mentoring, outreach and internships. It seeks to enlist professionals to mentor those in their field. It will look at ways to provide shared professional services, investment capital and revolving loan funds. It may enlist celebrity actors and musicians and writers to promote AIR goals. It may sponsor local and regional conferences.

The discussion is only beginning. In my next post, I'll address some of the ways that AIR plans to incubate regional artists and arts orgs in the West. I'll also look at the role that Fort Collins itself is playing in the Rocky Mountain West's arts and cultural renaissance. It's not all about "beers, bikes and (snow)boards" -- but all of those "B" words feed "A" energy (as in "Arts").

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