In April, at the Rustbelt to Artistbelt conference in St. Louis, Bill Cleveland and I had a brief chat between sessions. As inevitably happens when we talk, the subject was the relationship between arts organizations and the communities they are designed to serve. I began my rant about the structure of the arts establishment being the successor to the patronage system and Bill reminded me that the “beholden to elite interests” framework (not his words, I’m paraphrasing here) was so ingrained as to be invisible. (I didn’t write it down, but what he actually said was far more cogent, something like “our unseen ecosystem is killing us.”) That led me to observe that in the arts community we are swimming in a pond that we don’t recognize (remember the old speculation that fish don’t/couldn’t understand the concept of water?) and that insofar as the status quo distances art from the broad community, it is, in the long run, toxic to the arts.
And that, of course, was the moment when the little bell rang in my head saying, “There’s a blog post topic.” The pond in which we are swimming worked out OK, arguably, through the late twentieth century, but it is a pond that is drying up (rising cost, decreased numbers of donors, competing interests, social/cultural/demographic change). As it dries, the toxicity of the remaining water is becoming increasingly concentrated, to the peril of those of us swimming in it.
I love good metaphors, but what inevitably happens is that they break down. I don’t know if carrying this one forward means that we need to sprout legs and crawl to a different pond (an interesting possibility to ponder), sprout wings and fly to safety while we figure out how to breathe oxygen, or simply acknowledge that change must occur, abandon the metaphor, and just learn how to do things differently. But change we must and the signs/messages/awareness are all around and increasing in urgency. (Change)
Not that I think anyone really cares enough to be paying this close attention, the heat and to-do lists have gotten to me this summer. I’ve slid into a once-a-week pace that will likely last through August. May all our air conditioners continue to function effectively.