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In Times of Crisis: Saving Art

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In order to understand where art is headed in this new e-economy, we must remember where art has been and see the possible trajectories for the future. Tuesday a piece entitled, The High Cost of Free Culture, was posted by Bevin Carnes on the Huffington Post. Carnes closes her piece with the following:

I don't know about you, but I don't think I'd want to live in a world where every movie or song you see or hear HAS to sell you a product in order to be profitable -- yikes! That's not a utopia that's a dystopia! Let's stop being naïve about the Internet and hand the power over art back to the artists before it's too late! Yes, we might have to pay for our movies and music, but at least they won't sound like advertising jingles or look like product placement ads.

A Look at History
I hate to be a kill-joy, but the vast majority of classical art pieces were designed as product placement ads paid for by monarchs and religious institutions. The Sistine Chappell is an advertisement, just like Shakespearean Plays and Swan Lake - all were bought and paid for by the wealthy for a purpose. If we look at the distribution of wealth today, we may see a recipe for the same type of system. And keep in mind that 'high art' was once 'commercial art' - operas were made for mass-public consumption and as tools for spreading nationalistic ideals. Remembering this may be a good and grounded place from which to deepen our conversation regarding our current 'arts crisis'.

We are living in an anomalous age, which represents a comparatively new way of thinking about art. Making a living from art, as a pure expression of the artist, was unheard of throughout most of history. The livelihood of an artist was provided largely by individuals and institutions who controlled the content and context of their work. In this time of viral media, self-publishing and producing, and watch-on-demand entertainment, artists have never been so free and in control of their art. The real crisis in the arts, and in general, is monetary.

Cultivate 'Cultural Locavor-ism'
One way to build your base is to have a [home] base. The internet provides a medium to carry your message and your work around the world. This is exciting and presents great opportunity for collaboration and promotion, it does not always translate into day-to-day support and audience attendance. This is why it is important to think globally and act, dance, sing, and make art locally.

I recently traveled to Norfolk Connecticut, where a new local arts festival, Norfolk Arts Wave!, was held. Norfolk wisely decided to capitalize on the fact that since 1941, the Yale School of Music has held its summer program and a Chamber Music Festival there every year. The town had an audience, a gorgeous 700-seat venue built in 1906, and a town filled with talent. Arts Wave! brought visual artists, writers, musicians, and dancers from the area together as a part of their economic development plan. This helped draw more people to the town, its businesses, and its artists.

In a New York Times article entitled, Sketching a Future for Brooklyn Museum, Artist William Powhida suggested the museum develop a survey show focused on Brooklyn artists - and why not? Just as local politics address issues that effect citizens of a community so can art. Several weeks ago I posted a piece on the Memphis Ballet, a regional dance company with a vision for community engagement. By dedicating creative energy and resources to both community and art, Memphis Ballet is actively choreographing its future. From the White Paper co- authored by artistic director Dorothy Pugh,

...possibilities are there to be explored, and specific initiatives will be undertaken... that help the company grow and prosper in a different way that benefits its home.

Art has the ability to give voice to both artists and community members simultaneously. Just as eating locally (locavor-ism) builds the agricultural businesses of an area, so too can the consumption of local art and culture.

Seek Alternatives
Michael Kaiser, a leading voice in arts management, is the president of the Kennedy Center. He has caught attention with his Arts in Crisis Program and subsequent national tour. He makes many fine points regarding running a multi-million-dollar institution. He also represents an arts organization akin to a royal family, receiving government subsidies, and having the luxury and security of procuring programming and funding years in advance of production. In Kaiser's most recent post for Huffington Post, The Planner vs. the Entrepreneur, he writes,

"I have spent much of the last two years trying to convince arts organizations to plan their art four or five years in advance. I believe that this time frame gives the organization the time it needs to find resources, create excellent art and attract an audience. Virtually every project we mount at the Kennedy Center was planned five years before it is on one of our stages."

Planning ahead is important, but if art is truly in crisis we need to step back and see the whole picture before promoting future spectacles. I think it is safe to say we need more leaders thinking about realistic options for artists and arts organizations. I would like to begin conversations about what 'saving the arts' might look like. Let's start by individually and collectively deciding what we are trying to save: the act of making art? The idea of what it means to be an artist? Or the non-profit arts structure we currently have.

This article is the continuation of an on-going exploration of choices and opportunities we have to better understand and participate in: health, art, education, and our communities. I look forward to continuing the conversation.

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