It Can't Be Just About Artists

By Bill Ivey, Director, Curb Center, Vanderbilt University

Lynne, Chris, and Nathanial mention "norms" and "cultural rights," which encourages me to shift the conversation away from the standing or condition of artists toward consideration of broad norms and how they might support a cultural rights argument as a way of advancing a vibrant expressive life as a public good.  In my book, Arts, Inc.: How Greed and Neglect Have Destroyed Our Cultural Rights, I advance six citizen rights that can ground the cultural system in public purposes.  The two most-important cultural rights, to me, are the Right to Heritage and the Right to a Creative Life.  The first is about access and ownership (Who "owns" Louis Armstrong's classic "West End Blues," Sony Music or the American people?); the second about arts learning and access to the tools of personal creative practice.

Of course, as Chris would agree, there is currently no norm to support this set of rights.  Cultural engagement is seen as an amenity, something to take up when all material needs have been addressed (we never get to that point!).  Perhaps we can learn some things from the environmental movement that facilitated the creation of a norm back in the early 1960s?  Obviously, "clean air" or "save the earth" are at first blush more compelling than "culture and a high quality of life," but I believe we can begin to talk about access to heritage and access to personal creative practice as essential elements of quality of life in a post-consumerist democracy.  The environmental movement began a process that ended with legislation, an environmental council, and ultimately a government reorganization that gave us the EPA.  With cards played patiently, we might just get to that department of cultural affairs.

However we proceed, toward a norm or as advocates for cultural rights, I think it's important to remember that our arguments must advance on behalf of citizens, not only artists.  After all, good health policy is not just about the needs of doctors, nor is transportation policy only about structural engineers and roadbuilders.  Ultimately the best system of media ownership, Internet openness and access, copyright, and public media is a good one because it serves all citizens, not just practitioners.

And, while I concur with Nathanial that "getting the policy right" won't automatically produce positive change, we already have plenty of accumulated evidence that getting the policy wrong can do real damage.

What do you think?  How can we advance cultural vibrancy as a public good?  (And I don't mean economic impact...)


July 21, 2010 8:55 AM | | Comments (2) |


Perhaps the best funding systems are those that minimize the dichotomy between the artist and community, or the artist and the public good. The ideal might be that the ideal that the artists are an inherent part of their communities.

In Germany 98.8% of the public funding for music is spent on the municipal and state level. The actual numbers:
Federal 31 million
State 1.01 billion
Municipal 1.77 billion


The visual and other performing arts follow a similar pattern. The belief is that communities can best judge for themselves the kind of art they would like to have, and that they best understand the work and needs of their local artists. Artists are seen as part of the community and as its representatives. In the case of orchestras and opera, the artists actually have positions as civil servants. They ARE the community.

I think this would be the best system for a diverse country like the USA. It is simply not possible for people in Washington to understand the cultural needs and perspectives of areas as diverse as California, Minnesota, Alabama, and North Carolina.

This would also solve difficult political problems. If San Francisco wanted an experimental performance art festival and a Senator from North Carolina objected, they could just tell him to stay at home and mind his own business. And if people in Tennessee want to fund a large festival of Appalachian folk music they could tell the aesthetes in Chicago who make fun of them the same.

Culture is by its very nature inherently local and this should be reflected in public funding systems. Artists ARE the community.

Thanks for these reflections, Bill. When I read Arts Inc, I was repeatedly struck how it resonated with the punk rock tradition that first fueled my interest in arts organizing, especially in the passages about reconceptualizing participation. And I was delighted to see the subtly subversive way that you placed hip-hop and other popular genres in the community context of "cultural heritage."

In fact, I can think of no sector of the arts world that has been more successful in reconfiguring broad norms and orienting us towards action for a vibrant expressive life than the field of all-ages venues and grassroots youth music organizations. As we describe in our book In Every Town: An All-Ages Music Manualfesto, this has been an organic phenomenon, emerging in basements, warehouses, storefronts, even teen centers, over the past 30 years as young people have stepped up and claimed their right to a creative life.

Tim’s discussion of the many hats that artists wear is very relevant here, as all-ages music organizers intuitively combine arts performance, arts administration, arts education, and arts policy work, although they rarely frame their labor in those terms. It’s often the same dedicated young people playing in bands, planning and running events, participating in skill-sharing workshops, serving on boards and committees and—when necessary—organizing activists to lobby city governments, all under the same roof. The culture of these spaces centers on demystifying the tools of cultural production. Frequently, they offer hands-on training and workshops in live sound, audio engineering, emceeing, etc. Audience members are empowered to participate as organizers, performers and volunteers, developing the skills, confidence and inspiration to make their own art and start new venues in new places. Thus, artists and audiences alike learn to think critically about the conditions that allow grassroots cultural expression to flourish; they learn to be advocates.

The participatory culture extends beyond music; many spaces anchored on music also include galleries, silkscreen studios & darkrooms, recording studios, and zine libraries, all for community use. Often self-consciously positioning themselves in liminal spaces between “high” and “low” art, they tend to be places where experimentation across genres and disciplines naturally thrive and anyone can see herself as a creator; thus they’re well-positioned for the remix era that Lynne describes. And since volunteerism and DIY thriftiness are central values, overhead costs are often much lower than similarly scaled arts organizations; a great example of the “simplicity” that Casey called for.

Advocacy is a natural outgrowth of participation in all-ages music culture. In my hometown of Seattle, for example, there are a handful of arts orgs that have joined forces with the media-reformers working on the net neutrality issue, which is so important to all of us. They aren’t the high art institutions, museums, galleries, nor are they unions or service organizations. They’re organizations that come from punk/hiphop/youth civic engagement backgrounds and teach people to take the tools of culture into their own hands: Hidmo, a hiphop community center; The Vera Project, a community run all-ages venue; Reel Grrls, a filmmaking program for young women rooted in the DIY punk ethos.

What’s incredible is that these kinds of projects are already happening across the country and has been for decades, mostly off the radar of policymakers and arts funders. That's starting to change, but bridging the wide gap between these young grassroots organizers and the people with the resources to support them is going to be crucial for maximizing their impact and creating a sustainable future for the arts.

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