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, February 25, 2014

Party in the Streets of Downtown Belmont

April 13, 2014, 12 - 8 p.m. will be a fun and unique celebration on Monticello Road.

Like last year, the Tom Tom Founders Festival Sunday block party will be in Belmont but this year it will be much, much more ambitious. They’re teaming up with the Belmont Carlton Neighborhood Association to bring the celebration into the neighborhood. The combined Tom Tom Fest / Belmont Bash will have hubs at the Bridge PAI and Downtown Belmont, which will be closed to automobile traffic and open for a family-friendly community block party.

There will be music, food, art, community information and discussion—and whatever fun you choose to bring. We're still working out the schedule but there will definitely be the following:

Street Mandala painting
Following the successful Belmont Avenue mandala, this creative street painting will calm traffic, and allow residents and friends to actively co-create an enduring neighborhood landmark

Porch Music
Local and acoustic music scattered on porches and patios throughout. More info coming soon.

Photo Booth, Story Station
Passers-by may stop in and have their photo taken and receive a free print on the spot. The pictures will then be included in a growing neighborhood slide show. We will also record stories and impressions from youngsters to long-timers for our future cell phone audio tour. 

Urban Agriculture Space
Mas will transform from world-class restaurant to an idea-sharing space that will feature community and design ideas and information from the food side this vibrant, innovation community. If TJ were alive today, he would definitely stop by to see what Schoolyard Garden and others are up to and hoist a local cider.

Community Groups and Vendors
Let us know if you or your organization would like to participate with a table.

Fun Block Party Stuff
Fire trucks, balloons and face painting

YOU bring the party!
This event is a true community celebration, rising from the ground up. If you have ideas for projects, would like to set up a table, or can volunteer your time, please get in touch! The only things that will happen will be what we do ourselves—together.

Note: Road Closure will extend from Belmont Market to Rialto Street beginning at 9:00 a.m. to allow community adults and children to begin the street painting. Streets will reopen by 9:00 p.m.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Design and the Public Interest

I was fortunate to attend a seminar on Design in the Public Interest this past weekend. Public Interest Design (PID) is an approach to architectutre with an organizing principle that “all people should be able to live in socially, economically, and environmentally healthy communities.” At the beginning of the session, we saw a slide with a pie graph with a tiny “2%” sliver. That represents the portion of the populace that interacts with architectural design. PID is for the other 98%.

Many industries have robust segments dedicated to the public interest—public health, pro-bono interest lawyers and community-based artists. As in those other industries, PID usually addresses the needs of the under-served, takes a humble listening-centered approach and is very focused on long-term impact. It’s relatively new and there is a developing set of best practices, ethics and evaluative tools—and a growing community of practitioners.

Many of their issues, approaches and objectives align with those of smart art policy. Terms like excellence, innovation, identity, diversity, heritage and sense of place are central in the discourse. The goals overlap quite a bit.

There was one moment, though, when I was struck by how far ahead the art discourse has advanced. In one of the discussions, someone said that “quality of life” is not a useful goal because it is difficult to define and perhaps impossible to measure.

Those who have studied art policy would disagree. The very purpose of art is to bring quality to life that exceeds existence and there is correspondingly much research about what defines a quality life, what cognitive tools and processes are employed and how art can spawn and nourish them.

NEA’s How Art Works study has defined the question with clarity and has map a methodical process that it is now following to examine the constituent sub-questions. We have a pretty good idea what makes people happy but finding the right approach is difficult. Although it will never be a settled question, it seems that smart strategies are available.

While PID professionals, who are mostly involved in small practices, might feel a little hopeless in the face of gigantic numerical social problems, they are a shining light when it comes to solving practical dilemmas—even if they are difficult. Funding is a prime example.

There is a strong current of social entrepreneurism guided toward the public interest. The question of resources is approached with creativity: every stakeholder is also a potential investor, in their own way. Lines blur between practitioner and client and then customer feedback becomes inherent in the early design process. It made me think a lot about the idea of the citizen artist, who is both audience member and performer, reader and writer depending on the time of day, location or hat.

There’s a powerful notion that art is for everyone because art is everyone. It’s inspiring to see designers working from a similar script, and their practical-minded problem solving approach provides good ideas.

It’s a great synergy.

The conference was organized by The Public Interest Design Institute.
As part of my professional education and ongoing research, I’m fortunate to be permitted to audit George Sampson and Lindsey Hepler’s class on the Arts and Public Policy in the Architecture School at the University of Virginia. This post, and others in the series are reaction to our readings and discussions in which I find links between our readings and discussion and the front lines of community-based art. 

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Robbing Art to Pay Reading

I received an email today from the Charlottesville City Schools Arts Coordinator (who is also a neighbor and Monticello Road collaborator) telling me that the school district is considering reducing his position to part-time (actually 10-month full-time).

This is an unsound idea but it also reflects a shortcoming that is consistent with much of what I read in the planning literature. There are two problems: it is strongly biased toward short-term metrics and it is negativistic. Let me explain.

The City Schools are facing a tight budget, like so many others. Yet, while eliminating content specialists, the budget adds more “educational coaches” who spend time with young children who have difficulty reading. So, while not quite a wash, the change is more effectively viewed as a resource shift. To the extent that budgets are financial manifestations of our priorities, both the message and the results are the same: beefing up reading dialing back on creativity.

I don’t mean to be overly reductionist—it’s a very complex issue. Indeed studies show that early investment in childhood reading yields very good social outcomes. But, in a zero-sum scenario (and we’ll leave aside for now the notion that it does not need to be zero-sum) is it smart to invest in reading at the expense of art? We can’t really know but be do know that since reading is obsessively tested and creativity is not there is a powerful incentive to allocate toward the program that is closely evaluated. Without any bad intentions, district planners must be sorely tempted to load resources toward measures that show good metrical results for the district. That makes everyone think they (the schools) are doing a good job.

But of course, there’s a big difference between showing good results and educating our children well. This misalignment of incentives is driving parents and teachers crazy nationwide but it’s not surprising. The planning process is almost built to fail that way.

I see the same thing in public policy planning, where economic impact is an overriding concern. Studies show (usually with heavy footnotes) that the arts have a mildly positive economic impact but it’s not akin to that of a water main, a road or communications trunkline. Arts are not for economic growth and so discussions that are heavily founded on economics won’t reflect especially impressively. It’s not that the arts look bad under economic analysis, rather more take-it-or-leave-it.

However, beyond the modest fiscal boost, arts do some essential things that have very fundamental—but indirect—ramifications. Arts promote vitality, optimism, trust and innovation, all preconditions for prosperity. So by sharpening the point of the economic spear into ever-steeper slopes of measurable return, we risk undermining the shaft that’s driving it.

That gets me to the positivistic/negativistic dilemma. The school district sees a problem (must raise test scores) and is reaching for an obvious response tool: coaching. But by pivoting resources toward this quantitative problem, it’s neglecting the qualitative question—the only one that matters: what kind of education should our children receive? What are we preparing them for?

The schools’ most essential job is to prepare children for the future—a world that doesn’t exist and jobs that haven’t been imagined yet. They will need the perceptive and creative skills that the arts teach so well. Cutting those programs is understandable given the incentive structure but it’s not in the interest of the child.

These are the mechanics of art getting short-shrift in the planning process. It’s also a great opportunity to change the conversation away from burnishing whichever metric is currently en vogue and toward a discussion about what kind of community we want to be.

Art does very well in that conversation if we allow it in. In this case, by proposing arts cuts, the district is necessitating the conversation. Perhaps a gift in disguise.

As part of my professional education and ongoing research, I’m fortunate to be permitted to audit George Sampson and Lindsey Hepler’s class on the Arts and Public Policy in the Architecture School at the University of Virginia. This post, and others in the series are reaction to our readings and discussions in which I find links between our readings and discussion and the front lines of community-based art.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Is Extreme Wealth Killing Art?

It’s great when a newspaper story about art jumps off of the kitchen table and demands to be noticed. This week, it happened in two very different articles about money in the arts, both laments, about where our culture is going and how its creative edge is being dulled through neglect.

The tighter, more straight-forward piece was in Sunday's Washington Post. Philip Kennicott asks, “As the price of art rises, is its value plummeting?” It’s a great, if oft-posed, question: as asking prices for blue-chip art enter mathematical ranges, and it becomes monitized, what does that do to the motives behind its creation, curation and distribution? How can that have an other-than-malign impact throughout the food chain? If one assumes that art is meant to be for something does not the commodity role squeeze other things out?

It can be argued that other assets—grain, for example—successfully perform dual roles as repositories for wealth and useful social functions. But those roles, different as they may be, are apples-to-apples: they are both utilitarian. Art has a quasi-spiritual function and that is what differentiates a urinal from a DuChamps. As we move into a supra-corporate model of wealth, with oceans of opacity between owners and assets—and increasing walls between people, I can say as an artist that it’s despairingly difficult to connect money and meaning in art.

Kennicott opens the piece by describing the record-breaking sale at Christie's of a Francis Bacon triptych. He closes by noting that the piece will be on display in Portland for a short time and notes that the anonymous owner is being heavily reimbursed for the loan through a tax deduction. The bad thing in my view is this: almost no one will go to see Bacon's art (although justifiably many people love his work); let’s be honest—everyone is going to see the huge container of wealth, ostentatiously displayed by someone who is ironically uncomfortable (also, I think, justified) about that very wealth. And even this one act of sharing is heavily caveated.

If I were to hazard one explanation of art’s social purpose, it would be that art is an exploration of each maker’s individualistic condition and that by midwifing those ideas into an object and putting it into public space, it transforms into an independent object among us all for discussion and reflection. It brings us together despite all of our differences because we all have varied but equally valid connections.

But by standing in as an explicit class signifier, the Bacon becomes a symbol of difference. Instead of bridging barriers, it is wall itself and the crowds that will go see it do so in the spirit of fascination with a car wreck. Is that what art is for? Is that what Bacon intended? As an artist, it is discomfiting, to say the least.

Surely we can do better.

[Full Story]

Editor’s Note: This phenomenon is the reason why Monticello Road is explicitly non-commercial. Too often, the confluence of money and art is a barrier between people. As this project strives for the opposite effect, it was important (though difficult) to find a way to get money out of the picture. Anyone who wishes to have a picture can have one through a variety of channels and support strategies, all deriving from the community, not through government or foundation financial. 

As part of my professional education and ongoing research, I’m fortunate to be to audit George Sampson and Lindsey Hepler’s class on the Arts and Public Policy in the Architecture School at the University of Virginia. This post, and others in the series are reaction to our readings and discussions.

Can Charlottesville Plan its Way to a Better Cultural Scene?

The second article about money in the arts was more problematic. In reporting about the Create Charlottesville/Albemarle Cultural Plan, C-Ville Weekly reporter Elizabeth Derby zeros in on one, predictable, aspect of a complex plan: Can public money grow Charlottesville’s arts scene? I calmed down with the third reading, but I must say that I was put off from the first line, in which she describes the multi-year undertaking, which unified the cultural community like nothing before, as “absurd.” It’s the type of blithe snark that one expects from a free weekly and I hope that it was awkward writing--not her intent.

The question itself is an absurdity in itself, but in the opposite direction: of course money can grow the art scene, just as it can grow the restaurant scene or the skateboarding scene. The real question, though, is how best to grow the art scene? That’s what the plan is about and money is really a small part of it, notwithstanding the huge dollar bill on the tabloid’s cover.

The spirit of the plan is about working together as a whole community—different organizations, municipalities, interest groups, audiences, and cultural workers—toward making Charlottesville a livelier, more culturally rich place. After its inauspicious start, the article dives into the planning process in some detail sketching the whole process from the Arts and Economic Prosperity Study that inspired it, through 1,000 surveys and focus groups, all the way to the final draft and launch. It’s a lot to digest in just a few pages and the story sketches it out pretty well, notwithstanding the gloomy tone.

The Cultural Plan is a hopeful exercise based on the premise that it’s possible to work together to make the region better through cultural policy and planning. I happen to agree with that premise, but even if you’re not sure, what’s the alternative?

Those who have studied art and public policy know that power abhors a vacuum and, in the absence of public discussion, wealth will drive cultural priorities, as it does in other fields. That’s why I loved seeing the Post story next to this one—it highlights the market’s limitations as a cultural driver.

The Cultural Plan does not directly address supply and demand (and that is indeed a grave weakness) but neither is it a specific road map; more of a statement of values and priorities. The genius, really, is in the process: in bringing together diverse parties to discuss priorities, it sets the table for those groups to work collaboratively to solve some of the daunting challenges that lie ahead.

After I got over my anger at the article’s tone, it made me sad. It’s full of lamentation about what an interesting place Charlottesville used to be in some undefined golden age of hipness. (It should be noted that several of the story’s primary sources have not lived here for some time). I feel sorry for them, if that's what they want, but the collaborative process going forward can only improve the situation (marginally at the very minimum) that drove them away.

I’m glad the C-Ville decided to highlight this important discussion. How could it not, really? I’m sorry, though, that the story is written from such a pessimistic perspective. Yes, there is a malaise in the arts community, as if
“Art is just another hope to be abandoned, along with the hope that your children might do better than you’ve done.” [from the WaPo article]
But here’s a very real effort, with real investment (mostly time) by smart people, to make it better.

Let’s button our vintage flannels, roll the sleeves up and get to work!

[Read the C-Ville article here]

Disclaimer: I was closely involved with the Cultural Plan as a focus group leader and on the Artist Resources Task Force. Monticello Road and StoryLine are cited as successful models and McGuffey Art Center, where I am resident, is listed as both a key asset and opportunity for growth.

As part of my professional education and ongoing research, I’m fortunate to be permitted to audit George Sampson and Lindsey Hepler’s class on the Arts and Public Policy in the Architecture School at the University of Virginia. This post, and others in the series are reaction to our readings and discussions.   

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Citizen Artist

This week was a great discussion about the citizen artist and the role of the arts in the crafting of a meaningful, balanced and productive live. As this blog is all about a community art project, it’s necessary for me to add that arts are an important glue that creates healthy communities. The many demonstrable benefits that accrue to an individual who has a rich creative life project onto the community at large as well.

This happens on a few levels:

1. Art creates a common reference that two discrete individuals can share without giving up any of their individual autonomy. You can talk to your neighbor about a performance you’ve witnessed at the local school, just like you see people of very different social extraction bonding together about last night’s football game. (Read here about Bill Ivey's amazing riff on that topic).

That may seem trivial or superficial but those initial bonds are key. No conversation of any merit can take place without a hello and the more we share simple things, the easier it is to work together on the profound. Liu and Hanauer argue that these small bonds are the key to trust, which is the only glue that can hold democracy together.

2. Art is an opportunity for engagement and if it is successful it does so in a zone of the sublime. It inspires an active response; it provokes—and that is how it is different from craft, which comforts and reassures. So art clears out the cobwebs and opens the pathway toward constructive engagement, bettering ourselves in whatever crazy way we see fit and kicks off a virtuous cycle of inspiration, creation and sharing.

This breaks through the lethargy and demonstrates that we can do something and that difference between zero and one is profound. So, as we bond together in the previous case, we do so in a way that is optimistic and with a quiver of emotional tools for positive change.

3. Finally, the making of art can itself be a community building activity on the physical level, which reinforces so much that is good. For example, in my neighborhood we painted a mandala on the road, which is now a community landmark, and it is one that we built ourselves and invested in together. By getting our hands dirty together we literally made ourselves into a community and doing so through art imbued that process with profound meaning on top of the circumstance. It was much better than picking up trash, for example.

So clearly, art within the community (as opposed to being shunted off to some cultural reservation) has virtuous effects. While it’s great to have art in the community, it is much better when the art is of/from the community. That way we truly own it (the art and, by extension the community itself). A citizen is one who invests themselves in their nation, and like the other ingredients of a successful neighborhood, an art-rich community requires active participation.

That is why we need citizen-artists even more than we need art appreciators.

As part of my professional education and ongoing research, I’m fortunate to be permitted to audit George Sampson and Lindsey Hepler’s class on the Arts and Public Policy in the Architecture School at the University of Virginia. This post, and others in the series are reaction to our readings and discussions.