Ideas: May 2007 Archives

Madison, Wis., is one of those places that, for better or worse (mostly worse in my jaundiced view) finds its way onto many a list. From Richard Florida's "creative class" list of the best smaller cities in which to live, to the Money magazine rankings that put Madison #1 in America in 1996 to the current Forbes magazine list that dubs us one of the best cities for empty nesters, there's a lot of Madison hype out there.

Although Madison is not my original hometown and I had lived in a bigger city immediately before coming here, it's grown on me. Having lived here a dozen years now, I can see ways in which it's grown and improved. One example: when I came here in 1995 there was a dearth of independent and foreign films, something I'd come to take for granted in Minneapolis. Since then, a top-notch film festival has been established and will celebrate its tenth year in 2008, the UW Cinematheque brings fabulous and rare finds to the community and shows them for free, and several commercial theaters are also regularly programming art-house fare, including the splashy new Sundance 608 theater.


Although I will never be a native Madisonian and there are many ways this city can be self-congratulatory and grating, I've become a bit of a Madison defender, much to my surprise.


In recent months and years, two well-known writers/consultants on workplace issues and shifting demographics have moved here: Rebecca Ryan (of the forthcoming book Live First, Work Second) and Penelope Trunk (of the Web site Brazen Careerist and the new book of the same name). Ryan is a Wisconsin (but not Madison) native; Trunk is not.


I realized I'd become a touch defensive about Madison when I read this on Trunk's blog: "I'm not going to tell you that Madison is a bastion of culture and innovation. It's not." What rubs me the wrong way is that it's the limited perspective of someone who's barely acquainted with her new city. I, too, was a little underwhelmed when I came here. But that's the catch of local culture, I think, especially in smaller cities: you've got to know what's there and--this is the crucial part, folks--GET OUT THERE AND EXPERIENCE IT.


And Madison's culture is hardly secret: we've got an alternative weekly (the paper I contribute to), plus two dailies and countless blogs and Web sites to keep one informed. Theater runs the gamut from professional companies to a funky, $8-a-seat hole in the wall (and I mean that affectionately) that only produces new, original work. There are two art museums, local galleries, restaurants from Indonesian to Nepali to Peruvian. In the sciences, we're home to Jamie Thomson (the world-renowned stem cell researcher) and Richard Davidson, who is doing groundbreaking research on the brain science of happiness. Internationally acclaimed conductor Edo de Waart lives here, and the Dalai Lama spoke here earlier this month.


I could go on, but I won't. My point is simply that, if you can't find culture and innovation here, you're not tryin' - and the same can be said of many, many small cities around the country.

May 22, 2007 6:00 AM | | Comments (3)


I recently took a nationwide survey conducted by Americans for the Arts. (If you haven't taken it yet yourself, you can find it here--but responses must be submitted by Friday, May 11). Once you finish the questionnaire, you wind up in a public forum where you can comment on an issue raised by the survey, or anything else that strikes your fancy. I think that's a great idea, rather than the standard "Thanks for your feedback" page.


One comment I saw there struck me, however. It's from a longtime arts educator who laments the cuts to arts in the schools. Fair enough. But then this person notes, "The baby-boomers are currently sustaining the arts venues through philanthropy. This will stop soon. We have not trained the next generation of music and art aficionados."


I won't name the commenter here since it is basically irrelevant; I have heard this line of thinking before and I also don't want to seem as if I am harping on one person. However, as someone firmly within Generation X (I'm mid-30s), this Boomer-centric mentality gets to me. Are X-ers (and Gen Y) really contributing to the arts at a lower rate than Boomers did at a similar age? If that is true (and I haven't seen numbers one way or the other yet--if anyone has those, please reply in the comments), we must consider the larger debt load Generations X and Y are leaving college with, as well as larger factors like the instability of Social Security. Charitable giving is something most people can manage only after the essential bills have been paid. I'm stepping up my contributions this year now that I'm finally in more of a position to do so.


I think the commenter's thoughts reflect a larger fear about what will happen to the culture once Boomers are no longer in control. The generation that once distrusted anyone over 30 now seems to dismiss anyone under 40 (important caveat: I'm not saying all Boomers react this way). Change can be a little scary; I'll admit I already feel out of sync with the current crop of 20-somethings who've never truly known a pre-Internet world (I left for college with an electric typewriter!). But culture has a surprising way of regenerating itself--it's just that the new forms may look unfamiliar. Â

May 8, 2007 6:00 AM |

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This page is a archive of entries in the Ideas category from May 2007.

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