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July 26, 2007

Art as a community pillar

Bridgette Redman

I live in a community that is in the process of transforming itself with several visions competing with each other for what the future will look like.

Lansing had always prided its stability on its three-pronged economy. We had the state government, the university, and Oldsmobile. When one suffered, another usually thrived, keeping things in balance until adjustments could be made. Well, Oldsmobile is now gone and there is little of the auto industry left here.

So the question is asked--as it is in many places around the country--what will we look like now?

Some that I've talked to over the past few months want the arts to become a central pillar of the economy. There is a dream that if the many existing organizations were to collaborate and obtain civic support, the arts could start generating the money lost by the auto industry.

It's a tough argument.

On one hand, there is some pretty hard data that the arts do generate money. There is also no lack for artistically talented individuals. On the other hand, there are very few artistic venues that could be called commercially successful. The majority of art organizations survive because they have passionate individuals working for them that are willing to sacrifice to create art. They labor with little expectation of a financial return.

There has also been uneasy partnerships between businesses and arts organizations. I've read John's entries about the Savannah Symphony Orchestra with increasing uneasiness. It feels like I'm looking into a mirror and seeing one of our local organizations. An organization that was once considered a cornerstone of the local arts community has been struggling for years in large part because it has a board with influential members who do not support its artistic vision. It is a board that is filled with people who have been successful in commercial undertakings but who have not been active members of the arts community. Rather than joining in the struggle to find solutions to the challenges the organization faces, they issue threats about closing the organization and demand that people are cut from staff--even those people who are bringing in grant monies that far surpass their salaries.

While I love the vision of a community that considers art one of its prime characteristics, I have to question what a commercialization would do to the life of art in the community. Would it continue to be art? Or would it become just another form of entertainment?

Business must value its bottom line. Art must value struggle.

For myself, I'm going to pursue more reading on the concept of the gift economy versus the market economy and how those economies can happily marry each other.

Posted by Bridgette Redman at July 26, 2007 8:23 AM


Here is an excellent book that could help in this discussion: "The Creative Community Builder's Handbook: How to Transform Communities Using Local Assets, Arts, and Culture" by Tom Borrup. It has some great case studies.

Posted by: Scott Walters at July 26, 2007 1:11 PM

Thank you! That is an excellent suggestion. I know I've seen that book in the hands of one of the local artistic directors. I'll put in my list of books to read as well.

Posted by: Bridgette at July 27, 2007 7:14 AM

I moved to the Lansing area after a 25-year career in arts management with some of the leading arts institutions in this country. The move was precipitated by family demands -- not my own desires.

Not just Lansing, but all of Michigan, has lost sight of the economic value a vibrant arts community can have. The Michigan legislature began cutting support for the arts decades ago. Michigan has been raped, losing its soul as well as it's economic foundation by inept politicians. Governor John Engler and his Republican legislature oversaw the total destruction of a state which had limited resources in the first place.

The days of any value to the arts community being realized in Boards of Directors who are serving because of their business connections is over. They seldom assist with raising the money they agree to raise when coming on the boards. Their artistic insight is virtually non-existant. They enforce policies that strangle the artistic voice.

As someone who loves the arts and has dedicated a major portion of her life to working to preserve them in our national culture, I mourn the state of our national soul. We are a people who prefer the violence of people killing one another for entertainment over the beauty of the human soul that can be found in a Mozart symphony. We are lost.

As for Michigan and Lansing, don't give it a second thought. The people who live here don't care, so why should anyone else? If we cared, we'd do something about the people we elect to represent us.

Posted by: Julie Duke at August 1, 2007 11:22 AM

Hello! It's always good to hear from a neighbor and I hope we someday have the good occasion to meet each other. For that matter, given the size of the arts community in Lansing, we probably already have at some point or another.

I agree that the state of arts funding has been pretty deplorable. However, I would argue that people do care about arts in Lansing and Michigan. It's been amazing to me how vibrant the arts community in our town is--this despite very little funding. Artists are being forced to find ways to create their art without the support they had in the past. Thankfully, they're creative people and are finding ways to do it.

I am optimistic that art will survive, in part because I am flooded with daily evidence that it is doing so. However, it will look different and we need to find new ways to communicate to the public what the value of art is and why it is of benefit to everyone to support it.

Posted by: Bridgette Redman at August 2, 2007 8:14 AM