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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Thursday, December 5, 2013

Where's the Art Version of Streetball?

The book I’m reading, Arts Inc. by Bill Ivey (former head of the NEA) is full of provocative and smart ideas but one quote made me throw the book in the air and start clapping. It’s spot-on accurate but I really love it because it makes an explicit connection that I’m always reaching for between my two twin interests: art and running. Furthermore he states explicitly what I’m always preaching: that art organizations should study sports marketing and especially those groups working on the grassroots—like, my employer, New YorkRoad Runners. They are doing a better job of changing lives than anyone in the arts and there are specific reasons why. Here’s Bill's blurb:
We first need to reframe our connection to art-making to match the way we think of athletics and exercise. In the world of museums, symphony orchestras, and dance companies, “participation” today means “attendance”; we’re participating in art when we buy a ticket to an exhibition or plant ourselves in a seat at a Mozart festival. In the world of sports we also participate by purchasing tickets and attending competitions, sometimes alongside thousands of fellow fans. But real sports activity is spread throughout the population; for those who don’t play tennis or golf or participate in an amateur softball league, society offers plenty of encouragement to exercise—even if it’s just a long, brisk walk three or four times a week. Our relationship with amateur sport seems healthy and rounded; we are accepting of wide disparities in talent and generous to those who can only take part in limited ways: we applaud the ten-minute miler just as vigorously as the sub-four champion. “Participation”, in sports and exercise means just what it says, doing. And, as a bonus, broad participation produces knowledgeable, enthusiastic audiences who support substantial compensation for thousands of professional athletes.

In contrast, most Americans are almost afraid to make art casually; there’s no longer an equivalent, in music, dance, drama, or drawing to the pickup touch football game on the back lawn on a Sunday afternoon. If we’re going to make art, it’s got to be serious business and the result has to be good. As Kimmelman observes, “Amateur equates to amateurish.” My friends in classical music talk with envy about European opera or symphony performances at which innovative or controversial performances once produced audience outrage and near-riots—people over there really care! Of course American enthusiasts are just wishing for the kind of audiences we find today at U.S. sporting events. To reach such a point we need to reconfigure the hierarchical pyramid that today is geared toward elevating only the best.[1]
Bill actually doesn’t go far enough. Sports programs that are well done create a virtuous cycle of health and fitness and that cycle is self-powered. He cites running, an industry I understand extremely well. Here’s how it works at the most macro level:
  1. Small groups gather informally at the amateur level to train or play. They are very welcoming.
  2. They work alongside one another pushing their own limits and each-others’ in a mutually supportive environment.
  3. Some few rise to such prominence that others want to come out and see them.
  4. Those performances inspire others (of all abilities) to run alongside them.
  5. People of all ages get out there and try to better themselves literally one step at a time.
  6. Here’s the cool part: others, including (and especially) the professionals see those kids, old folks and couch potatoes moving and they are hugely inspired.
  7. Repeat, only in larger numbers…
Of course, the analogy has limits. Running does not produce a very large cadre of people earning a living that way. It may seem impossible, but the odds of “making it” as a performer are even less for a runner than as an artist. Running is quirky that way. But the endeavor attracts breathtakingly many committed practitioners. Imagine what America would be like if as much time, and numbers, were devoted to actively exercising our souls as we do at the gym, trail or park. I suspect that many things would change.

The positive trends in health and fitness are exactly that: positive; so no one would advocate staying in a room (or a studio) at the expense of going for a run. Yet, the time and energy needs to come from someplace and I suspect the book will go on to advocate that we make time and money for informal, spontaneous art by refraining from so much consumerism and passive entertainment.

He’s interested in finding a way to get everyone involved and inspired and to feel empowered to do so at whatever level makes sense. That’s what we’re trying to do too.

1. Ivey, Bill. Arts Inc: How Greed and Neglect Have Destroyedour Cultural Rights. University of California Press, 2008 pp. 118-119. Reprinted without permission. Since Bill devoted  about 50 pages prior to that quote arguing that fair use is essential for a thriving democracy, I will take my chances…

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