For over forty years, Winston-Salem, NC has been my hometown. Thanks to generous support in the 20th Century from family members of the Reynolds Tobacco and Hanes Textiles owners our arts institutions have a long history. Home to “the nation’s first arts council” (though that is an arguable point) the city has fashioned itself as the “City of the Arts.” More recently, as the result of considerable activity in biotechnology, it has branded itself as the “City of Arts and Innovation.” (The legitimacy of these claims is not the point of this post.)
Over the last decade, like most small cities our newspaper has been downsizing precipitously. Today it is a mere shadow of the publication I remember from when I first moved here. That means, in many cases, local reporting has given way to syndicated features from around the country. (This does not include, of course, reporting on area sports.)
In particular, I’ve been observing that the Sunday “Arts” section has gotten to the point where now there is virtually no coverage (or mention) of local arts activities, with the exception of the single page edited by our arts council. Almost exclusively we are getting stories about books and movies that have no local connection.
As I mentioned, this contrasts radically with column inches from local sports reporters. The sports/arts dichotomy is certainly not new or exclusive to Winston-Salem. I’ve been grousing about it since I was a teenager, so my initial response was to fall back on that mode of thought. I was at the point of writing a letter to the editor to criticize the short-sightedness of these changes and the disconnect with the “arts and innovation” motto of our fair city.
But then I realized that I had fallen into an unexamined habit of thought–embarrassing, really, since I’ve been writing for years about this kind of thing from a completely different perspective. Media attention to our sector, like public policy regarding the arts, responds to public interest. Just as elected officials would provide limitless public funds for the arts if the electorate demanded it, so too would news media provide 24/7/365 coverage to the arts if the public (and therefore advertisers) insisted upon it. The question, in both instances, is why there is no groundswell demanding a focus on the arts; and then, of course, the logical follow up is what might arts organizations do about it?
The lack of a groundswell is–simply put–because the general public has insufficient interest in what the nonprofit arts industry presents. We can lament or deny this as much as we want to, but the facts on the ground are indisputable.
As for the what can we do question, I’ve spend the last decade plus writing about it. In particular, my post Matter by Mattering gives the prescription: “Communities must recognize what we do as meaningful, important, even life-changing to them–collectively and/or individually. To be seen that way, we must be and do things that make us so.” In other words we must learn and focus on the things that people care about. It is not sufficient to be “all about the art.” We must become obsessed with how our art can address people’s interests. We must . . .