Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Part II: Integrating Arts Funding into Economic Stimulus

I sometimes wonder what that amorphous "public" thinks of when they hear the phrase "arts funding." Do they think of it as money that goes exclusively to paying artists, buying paint, building sets, stitching costumes, framing work, setting up exhibits, etc.? Is it purely the front-of-the-house performance/exhibit aspect that is considered? Or worse yet, do they see public art money as supporting the leisure time of the elite or merely an extra that makes things "look pretty"?

I ask because I think if we looked at arts funding in a broader manner, the public might not only understand it better, but be more willing to get behind it.

While working on a story last December, I spoke with BoarsHead's Artistic Director Kristine Thatcher about how the arts survive during tough economic times. She pointed out that during the Great Depression, some of America's best plays were written and performed. "It is balm for the soul. It brings comfort and hope. You get together live and in person and share an experience. That's why theater exists--to examine who we are and who we want to be. We do that by looking at all of our stories."

Art has far more to contribute to an economic recovery than just escapism and the stimulation of creative thought (though both of those elements are quite important). Art can play a role in such areas as infrastructure, housing, and urban redevelopment--particularly the latter. That's not even touching upon the crucial role that arts play in education--a role that has been bolstered by study after study. (One of these days, I'll compile links to all the different stories and studies about how art in education improves literacy, reduces recidivism, creates more responsible citizens, and reduces racism.)

Leslie Donaldson, executive director of the Greater Lansing Arts Council, talked in an interview last year about how businesses are starting to realize the value of artists and the need for them in their work. She said:
In fact, a lot of reports have come out fairly recently on the importance of having an arts degree or a master of fine arts degree when you are in ithe business field. A lot of employers actually seek people who have arts backgrorusnds because when they are put in difficult situaions they want people who can be creative in approaching whatever issues might be in front of them.

Not only is it important for our soul in difficult times; it is important as a way to learn how to problem solve and be creative in our every day life.

About a month ago, Richard Florida wrote an excellent article about the type of infrastructure that we need to be stimulating if we're going to survive. Let me share an excerpt (bold is mine) while encouraging you to go read the whole thing:
However, the facts are that the locus of economic growth has shifted dramatically and a stimulus that focuses on traditional infrastructure cannot succeed. What drives the economy today is not the old mix of highways and single-family homes but new, idea-driven industries. They range from software, communication devices and biotechnologies to culture and entertainment - and importantly the convergence of the two.

The familiar kind of stimulus - the "shovel-ready" kind that built highways and roads, and worked so well during the Great Depression and its aftermath - worked precisely because it didn't stimulate that period's aging agriculture economy. Instead, it accelerated the transition to a new economy based on housing, autos and all the products of the industrial assembly line, from refrigerators and washing machines to air conditioners and television sets.

The Keynes-derived notion of pouring money into public works built the roads and infrastructure that spurred postwar demand and primed North America for postwar global economic dominance, because the consumption embedded in our suburban way of life stimulated just the right kind of industrial production.

But eventually the system got out of whack. The housing and credit bubbles of the past decade ultimately biased and distorted our economy, channelling money and investment toward older industries, real estate and construction and away from more productive, innovative and creative ones.

For a stimulus to work today it has to stimulate the emerging creative economy, the engines of regional economic growth and higher incomes across Canada and the U.S.

Wonderful stuff there with a great historical perspective: the FDR New Deal worked because it moved us forward into a new economy. We now need to think carefully about whether we are trying to hold on to yesterday or whether we are forging a new economy, one that will make us productive in the future. Arts by their very nature are involved in the process of creation. We need the arts to help us create a new economy in which communication, technology, and creation are key players.


Some of the more exciting initiatives I've read about lately are the arts housing communities that are forming. They're still in the early stages and will have a lot to learn before they can be successful, but they're experimenting and taking the necessary risks.

The Jackson Arts Armory Project is one such undertaking. It creates housing and community where artists can live and create, incorporating studios into their living spaces.

The housing industry long ago figured out that they had to provide more than just walls and a roof to convince people to buy. They needed to create communities--whether gated or open--that gave people a reason to live in a particular place. They did this with suburbs and golf course and (more recently) spas. Art has always been about building connections and community.

Urban Redevelopment

It's easy to think about arts in such simple terms as creating murals in downtrodden neighborhoods--and those are wonderful, but the arts can go further in making a community somewhere that people want to live and where businesses want to invest. They help to give a voice to the people living in the community and to express how they want to live and what their concerns are.

Let me quote Kristine again, though this time from an interview more than a year ago:
If you can say one thing about the non-profit world, it is this: we’re big on ideas, short on cash. But it shouldn’t be that way. The not-for-profit world was created to fill a dire need in our communities. It doesn’t reflect commerce or regulations as do our businesses and our governments.

Both business and government can do precious little in terms of affecting social awareness and change. Non-profits exist to exalt the human soul, to rescue it when needed, to make life better, healthier, worth living. Hospitals, schools, churches, the Salvation Army, the Girl Scouts - that’s the work they do - they exist to change human experience for the better And by the way, the non-profits in this country are the country's largest employer.

We move forward together just a little bit to become a more decent and compassionate people. Theater does that whether we’re presenting serious drama or farce or light comedy. That’s why preserving the health of this organization is paramount. Lansing is a unique community - and this theater will reflect the life of this particular community.

If our urban areas are to survive, then they need to give people a reason to be there. They need culture--which is precisely where the arts come in. Think what could happen in Lansing or in any community if there were stimulus money available to build performance spaces, to construct outdoor arenas where the public can gather for concerts or performances, if studios were built to support the arts, to research the technologies of sound, light, and design.

Because I've already gotten too wordy in this blog (blog entries are supposed to be short, aren't they?), I'm going to post a few links to some urban development projects that incorporate art or artists:

  • Project where artists create a plan for unzoned land in consultation with residents.
  • Taking lessons in urban design from Thomas Kinkade's philosophy
  • A 60-page booklet published in 2003 on how the traditional arts can support and contribute to economic development. Part of its thesis is that there are three main arguments for why the fine arts should be a part of economic development: 1) Active cultural participation builds strong communities. 2) Strengthening cultural communities creates economic value. 3) The value created by cultural production can be harnessed for regional growth.
  • Seattle's efforts at creating affordable housing for working artists through targeted economic development.
  • Research abstract on cultural clusters and sustainable urban development.
Economic Recovery and the Arts

The Americans for the Arts went to Congress at the beginning of this year with several proposals for the role that arts could play in economic recovery. In their position statement, they wrote:
By investing in the arts, we're supporting an industry that is built on innovation and creativity, economic development, and the revitalization of America's communities and downtowns. When we increase investment in the arts, we are generating tax revenues, jobs, and a creativity-based 21st century competitive economy.
Some of their proposals included:

  • Artists be included in any unemployment and heath care benefits offered to part-time employees.
  • Boost arts projects in Community Development Block Grants. The "bricks & mortar" funding of the CDBG program is a primary government source for local arts instiutions of all disciplines. They called for $2 billion in funding for arts-specific projects to modernize, rehabilitate, and construct our nation's cultural facilities.
  • Provide economic recovery support to federal cultural agencies to increase current grantee projects. It encouraged the NEA to be able to allocate more money to formula grants that are administered through current local arts agency programs. This gets the money out to communities across the nation, disbursing local funding to all arts disciplines, employing artists and the cultural work force, and increasing access to the arts to leverage spending by audiences.
  • Include cultural planning through Economic Development Administration. Grants would help meet the increasing need for local cultural district planning and assisting municipalities with developing the creative economy in their communities.
  • Increase cultural facilities support in Rural Development Program.
  • Link Transportation Enhancements with state arts agencies so that they can contribute to transportation projects such as pedestrian and bicycle facilities, historic preseration and public art projects.
  • Expand the services available to workers in the creative sector and through arts instutions that can provide professional development training to help workers find new skills.
The arts aren't just something that cater to the cultural elite or are a frivolous extra more concerned with outer beauty than real community. The arts are something that belong to everyone and can benefit every single citizen.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Balm in Gilead

It's always a good night at the theater when I'm able to have some sort of epiphany or to learn something about myself and the world I live in. I had one of those nights Friday while at Lansing Community College's Balm in Gilead.

What I discovered was how very much my tastes in theater have changed over the past five years. Five years ago, I don't think I would have enjoyed Balm in Gilead much. I would have been bothered by the language and confused by the format. I would have wanted a show that was more conventional in its approach, spooning me softer food so that I could easily digest it.

That was five years ago.

On Friday, I found myself thoroughly enjoying the play, its presentation, and all of the experimental glory of Lanford Wilson's first work. The overlapping dialog and the multiple scenes provided the soundtrack for the actors who would only occasionally be given a solo moment to sing forth their part of the story. There was a cacophony that reinforced the chaos in each of the character's lives--a raucous rhythm that refused to be tamed into the melodic lines each of them longed for.

It made the quartet particularly potent, singing out their doo wops in the beginning with the New Yorkers rapt in attention, as if each still hoped that there could be such simple dreams expressed so clearly and easily. When that same quartet is later chased away, it is because their listeners have become more cynical, more hardened and are no longer pinning their hopes to a technicolor dream in button-down collars framing clean-shaven baby faces.

Balm in Gilead was a thoughtfully done play with staging and choices that each spoke in its own way, inviting you to delve into each image with all the allure of a Picasso hanging on a gallery wall. Neither will spoon feed you, but both are crafted with incredible attention to detail and fine artistic achievement.

Friday, March 20, 2009

A thought on Macbeth

I'm not in the least bit superstitious. I don't believe in horoscopes and have little use for much of the New Age philosophies.

That said, I don't speak the name of Macbeth in a performance space and have taught our son to do the same. I follow most of the superstitions of the theater, even though I don't truly believe that they will truly do harm.

While writing about Riverwalk's Macbeth today, I think I finally figured out why I do so. It's the tradition and ritual of theater. Traditions and rituals have value because they connect us to each other and give us a shared practice and a sense of history. They remind us of our stories and give us--however small--a piece of commonality.