Charles M. Blow, the New York Times columnist, wrote in September about a housing project in West Harlem: It Takes a Village. His principal reason for writing was to highlight a (rare) good news story about children and poverty. As he said, “Writing about children and the poor and the vulnerable these days, there aren’t very many bright spots — but this is one.” He visited the Dorothy Day Apartments on Riverside Drive run by Broadway Housing Communities. The day care center there, serving about 50 children, was bright and well lit. The floors above the center house 190 people, all of them in poverty, many formerly homeless. “And on the top floor is an art gallery that opens onto a sweeping veranda, lined with flowering plants and with some of the most magnificent Hudson River views in the city.” He asked why the building demonstrated such concern for beauty. One administrator responded: “You don’t just give a person four walls to live in. You give them something to be inspired by.” Another said, “”art and nature show the other side of poverty. . . .Poverty denigrates people and dehumanizes people.’” Blow observed that “the transformations of the adults, and, more important, the outcomes for the children have been incredible.”
I have for decades included in my Introduction to Arts Management class an article by Robert Coles, the renowned child psychiatrist, that is included in Sherman Lee’s 1975 milestone book, On Understanding Art Museums. (Unfortunately, I’ve not been able to find an online version of the article. If anyone knows of legal online access, let me know and I will share it in the future.) In the article, “The Art Museum and the Pressures of Society,” Coles describes his work with a troubled boy of thirteen, living in extreme poverty, and their experiences with the Gardner Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. After visiting the former, the boy asked him, “Why did they let us in there?” After the latter, “Will they mind if we come back?” The article goes on to describe the boy’s mother’s, father’s, and grandmother’s responses to art and the genuineness of those responses in contrast to the superficial relationship with art of the rich people for whom the grandmother cleaned house. I almost never make it through reading this article without breaking down, especially if I’m reading passages aloud to students.
The point of both these stories is that art is for all. It speaks to all. It moves all. But our actions, individually and institutionally, often don’t demonstrate real support for that. Much “art is for all” talk is lip service, not considering the ramifications of the simple statement. Truth to tell, if you go too deeply below the surface of at least some members of the arts community, there is ambivalence about whether art is for Bubba (or Billie Sue). He (or she) may not really be able to “get it.”
If art is for all, what is the responsibility of the arts community for making art be for all? In how many ways would our work look different if we consistently acted on that belief? Respect for all as a foundation for actions and a commitment to make art truly available to all are necessary first steps.
Read both of these articles. Dry your eyes, and then
Image from Broadway Housing Communities website