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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Sunday, February 9, 2014

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.   

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