Monticello Road is a community arts project in Charlottesville, Virginia. Through photography and a series of public events and conversations, we explore how an art can be an essential, integral and everyday part of a healthy community.

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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

A Nation of Artists?

A recent story on NPR about a new report from the National Endowment for the Arts really grabbed my attention. Basically it said that attendance (and box office) at cultural events from museum galas to craft fairs is down across the board but participation in the arts (the act of making art) is steady or even up in the United States.

The reasons for this go deeper than the current economic troubles. It looks to be more generational in scope as the audience figures are also skewing steadily older. I hope this is part of a macro-trend away from being a nation of consumers to a nation of makers/builders. That orientation between making and consuming is a pendulum that has swung back and forth throughout history and we’ve recently seen it go so far to the right it’s nearly brought the whole machine down.

I applaud the growing desire to create home-spun, living, neighborhood-based culture just as I do the explosive flowering (pun intended) of the home gardening movement. I am convinced that as Americans take more ownership of their own cultural experience, the more we will also appreciate the excellent work of art professionals.

That takes me back to the NEA study. If younger Americans appreciate art so much, (and what better way to show appreciation than by making a go at it oneself?) why are we not choosing to fund the arts by spinning the turnstiles at mainline cultural institutions?

Americans are not like Europeans: we do not particularly trust elite institutions with the decision-making or with the guardianship of our culture. We feel (rightly or wrongly) that we know our own needs better. We have a bias for mom’s oatmeal cookies over the critically-acclaimed fare at the bakery in town. It’s not a specifically about quality though: it’s about what feels right, what feels like home, what feels fresh.

A really dynamic culture needs both oatmeal cookies and delicate souffl├ęs and while I applaud this sudden desire seize ownership of one’s own cultural landscape, the dedicated arts professionals contribute in important ways. Foremost, they (we) set a standard of excellence that no weekend painter can match owing to significant investments in education, awareness of best practices, professional-grade materials, and—most significantly—full-time attention and effort.

I envision a culture where everyone participates. Everyone sees themselves as culturally empowered, creative souls working to make all of our worlds more beautiful. At the forefront of this endeavor, professional artists light the way, inspiring the rest. That’s what a vanguard does right? But a vanguard only makes sense with an army behind it.

There’s been a lot of gloom of late about the decline in arts funding at the macro level, deflation of the Artworld bubble and justifiable questions about how that vanguard will pay its bills. The NEA study shows that from an institutional standpoint, those concerns are well justified.

But let’s don’t get too stuck on the institutions. They come and go like the tide. The real surprise of the story—the man-bites-dog part, if you will—is the real evidence that the roots are very much alive. The task before us then is to find the types of institutions and funding models that make sense in the moment we’re in to bring fruit from that healthy soil.

I have many thoughts on the subject, enough to merit a whole new thread on this blog. One idea that hit me right away was this:

I am fortunate to work with professional runners for my day job. That’s right: there are people who get paid to run. Everywhere you go, you see hobbyists running for a thousand reasons. Current science indicates that it’s a fundamental part of human biology. Kind of like art. At the front of this teeming host of runners, there is a pack of frontrunners who have dedicated their lives to what for many is a very admirable hobby, and they are making it work. There is a professional infrastructure facilitating them and the result is an inspired, healthy population chasing after them—and funding them.

Professional athletics is participant-funded, which sets it apart from other spectator-driven leagues. Sounds like there are some parallels to the cultural landscape I just described. The economics under girding professional running—race fees, subscriptions, shoe and apparel sales, corporate sponsorship, charitable foundations and development—may not be directly applicable to the arts and the model is not a perfect one but it might provide some ideas. In a future posting, I shall endeavor to investigate some parallels and glean some lessons.

For now, know this: the more people out there making art, the more excellent art we will have as a result. And the evidence looks good.

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