Friday, December 18, 2009

Everybody Is an Artist!

The City of Philadelphia’s visual art exhibition program Art In City Hall, in collaboration with the National Arts Program Foundation, last night opened the 10th National Arts Program at Philadelphia, an exhibition featuring works of art by City of Philadelphia government employees and their families, including children.  Participants of this year’s exhibit come from many different departments and agencies in City government, including DHS, Law, Commerce, Free Library, Prisons, Police, Fire, Water, Courts, City Council and more.

The exhibition is open to the public from December 17 to February 19, 2010 and is located on the fifth floor of City Hall, north corridor.

The thing I love about this program is how it engages the full scope of Philadelphia's public employees, and shows that we have social workers, police officers, fire fighters, code enforcement officials, attorneys, administrators, etc. who are artists. These are people who make MAKING art a part of their life, and there is some great talent out there. For years Business Committee for the Arts (now part of Americans for the Arts) encouraged similar programs in business. Here is a link to a synopsis of a Forum held in DC a couple of years ago on the impact of art in the workplace programs.

Friday, December 11, 2009

New Arts Attack by Coburn and McCain

This past Wednesday Senators Tom Coburn and John McCain issued a new report purporting to identify 100 projects funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) that they feel raise questions about the effective use of these funds. This report has been covered in the media (see this Wall Street Journal story) and once again has raised the point - why is investing in the arts as part of recovery somehow considered to be, by its very nature, inappropriate? 

The list includes a number of arts projects funded by the NEA's stimulus grant program as well as other ARRA categories. A quick overview of the arts related projects on the McCain/Coburn list: $225K for Shakespeare theatre festivals in several different communities. $100k to "Anti-Capitalist, Socially-Conscious Puppet Shows (which includes $25K to Philadelphia's Spiral Q Puppet Theatre). What they define as "Clown Theatrical Production" - actually our own Philadelphia-based Pig Iron Theatre Company which got a $25,000 NEA stimulus grant. $13k to a public art piece in Fort Smith AK. $400k for "Jazz Festivals" (also through the NEA, including the Monterey Jazz Festival. Another work of public art in Washington State. A horse museum in Lexington KY. A storytelling festival in Utah. A dance troupe that has trained its dancers to do weatherization work and got a grant for this purpose ($935k). $2.6 million to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science for a geothermal project that seems to be presented as frivolous because they actually have money in the bank and hosted a President Obama's signing  ceremony for the stimulus bill.

I am sure there is legitimate questioning that can be engaged in about how stimulus funds are being spent, and that in the rush to get funds out quickly with a bewildering array of programs and criteria, there may be some questionable investments. BUT embedded in this list are a few very disturbing assumptions. First, the list seems to indicate that arts-related stimulus investment are somehow by their very nature inappropriate. An arts job is somehow not a "real job." The fact that an arts festival or program may attract significant tourism and ancillary expenditures thus magnifying the impact of the stimulus, seems irrelevant, or even - worse - somehow suspicious. Arts projects that can superficially be made to sound suspect because of their name or the nature of their work ("Pig Iron," "puppetry", "Shakespeare Festivals") especially get singled out. The fact that an arts group may have an endowment or be in the black (see the Denver Museum example) would somehow seem to make it subject to derision.

The Pig Iron grant retained a critical staff-person and helped support an internationally-recognized theatre group whose last production "Welcome to Yuba City" attracted huge audiences and was a virtual sell-out: employing many artists, technical and management staff and stimulating the economy in the Northern Liberties neighborhood where the production took place. Similar story with Spiral Q - NEA $ helped retain their production manager position, which if not retained would have resulted not just in a lost job, but a 50% reduction in their program capacity and services to children, magnifying the loss.

This morning Tom Kaiden of Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance went on Fox News to respond to this report, and I am sure this is not the last we have heard of this (as much as I would hope so). You can view the video clip here. The Cultural Alliance staff, working with input from many sources, including Americans for the Arts, has put together great background information to respond to these allegations, and I am sure will be glad to make it available to anyone who gets questions about this from the media, donors, etc.

I suppose it can't be repeated enough: An arts job is a job just like construction or retail or manufacturing. Investment in the arts as part of the stimulus bill is a minuscule share of stimulus spending, and a thoroughly appropriate component. Arts stimulus spending is actually one of the BEST investments we can make - the arts money is getting out into the community creating or saving jobs relatively fast (compare to other stimulus spending), the money for the most part stays local (no outsourcing in the arts), and there is an unusually high multiplier effect with arts spending, due to the related visitor/audience spending. Artists and those who work in the arts are voting, tax-paying citizens, whose kids go to the local schools, who buy their groceries in the local supermarket, who pay their mortgage, just like anyone else.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Obama on the Arts

Andrew Taylor posted this Obama quote from the Kennedy Center Honors that I thought I would share: “In times of war and sacrifice, the arts — and these artists — remind us to sing and to laugh and to live. In times of plenty, they challenge our conscience and implore us to remember the least among us. In moments of division or doubt, they compel us to see the common values that we share; the ideals to which we aspire, even if we sometimes fall short. In days of hardship, they renew our hope that brighter days are still ahead.

Well said Mr. President (or at least, great speechwriter...)!  Thanks for sharing Andrew.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Susan Stamberg on "Why Museums Matter"

Susan Stamberg of NPR gave a great talk this past Friday at the Philadelphia Museum of Art on the subject of "why museums matter."  In fact, though she used visual art and museums as a theme, she was really talking about the larger issues of the importance of the arts.

Her talk was wide ranging and much more personal than the usual arts advocacy "why the arts are important" talk, which was why it was so refreshing. Also, having heard Susan on the radio for so many years, it was also a treat to finally see and hear her in person - voice connected to a real live human being.

It was hard to take notes during her talk, because I did not want to be distracted from her words by trying to write them down. A few phrases stuck with me from her remarks. She rhetorically asked why we don't ask "why do we need rain," that art "soaks us with discovery." She noted (and believe this may have been a quote from someone else) that "art will save the world, if anything can." She recounted a New Yorker piece by Lawrence Weschler (later turned into a book) about interviewing the judge for the war crimes trial at The Hague of the perpetrators of the atrocities in Sarajevo, who was asked how he managed to survive - to keep his humanity through the horrific testimony he had to listen to day in and day out. His answer?  He periodically walks over to the Vermeers, to reacquaint himself with the stirring beauty human beings are capable of.

She quoted Robert Frost - "Home is the place where when you have to go there, they have to take you in," and drew parallels to the museum as a "second home" for us of sorts - a place that takes us in with no questions asked.

She made the interesting observation that from her many stories over the past few years on shows at PMA that she has found the curators there to be wonderful communicators in a way that is far from common. An audience question later asked whether the museums she has seen somehow reflect in their curatorial approach, their personality, the City or region in which they are located, and she said that seemed to be generally true.  I was able to join her for a small dinner afterward, along with some PMA staff, and this led to a conversation about whether PMA reflects the personality of Philadelphia and if so how. I actually believe there is truth to this, but that is for a future entry...

Wish I could more succinctly sum up the talk, but it was really a series of musings, meditations, on a life of trying to convey the power of art through the medium of sound, of radio, helping her listeners to "see" the art through only the sense of sound.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

More on Flash Mob Art

As a follow-up to my earlier post, here is a link to the work of Duncan Speakman, an artist using MP3 players and sound to create a "subtle mob" as he calls it. Here is the direct link to his newest project, called "as if it were the last time."

It is almost as if we need to create a new art form category of experiential, immersive, participatory art. I don't feel that any existing art form categories adequately capture this new developing body of work.