Friday, January 5, 2007

A Tale of Two Towns

It’s easy, when one advocates for the arts, to conjure up a Cuba Gooding-like fantasy in which a talented (but perhaps unknown) artist shouts “Show me the MONEY!!” and, poof, it magically appears. In my last column, in addition to demonstrating how infinitesimally small public funding for the arts is as a percentage of federal and state budgets, I said that advocating for the arts was actually not about getting more money. I even suggested money wasn’t really all that important. In this column I explain what I mean.

This is a story about two communities. One is large (population 9500), the other small (population 1900). One is, by Vermont standards, urban and industrialized; the other decidedly rural and still very much agricultural. Except for one thing, which I shall address in a moment, those are the basic differences between the two. What these towns have in common is a legacy of families who have a deep and abiding love and respect for Vermont in general and their communities in particular; major issues with traffic and safety; a high school that is under increasing pressure to produce outstanding students with fewer and fewer resources; an innate distrust of “flat-landers” who are, according to the “man on the street,” ruining all that is good about Vermont; and reasonably good access (eight miles or less) to a major interstate highway.

For the past generation or more, these two towns have had to confront significant issues around economic, social, and cultural survival. The larger town has seen its core businesses erode and, particularly in the last two years, a significant number of vacancies on Main Street. The small town has had to confront enormous pressures to upgrade transportation facilities, to cater more and more to the tourist economy instead of focusing on ensuring the vibrancy of its farm economy. Both are seeing their young adults leaving because there are too few jobs capable of supporting young families, and social, cultural, and recreational amenities are minimal—especially in the small town.

But there is one significant difference between these two towns, and it is this: the small town has become very good at articulating what it cares about, what it values, what matters to its citizens. The large town has not. The small town appears to be more concerned with making decisions that are in the public’s interest, that add to the perception that the town is a vital community worth preserving and protecting. The large town, with a few notable exceptions, has not.

The result of these two “public mind-sets” (if you will) is that the small town is managing the changes placed on it by globalization, the economy, and Vermont’s demographics in a way that is empowering its citizens and enhancing the community’s self-image. The large town is, by virtually any standard of measurement, foundering. The emphasis for the small town is on what matters, what people value; for the large town, it’s now only about how much (or little) things cost.

The difference between these two towns is like the difference between one who advocates for the arts based on a clear articulation of the “value-added” the arts bring to a place, to a community, to a project, and one who only focuses on what he could do if he only had more money.

The truth is, I have yet to meet a single person who has made a convincing argument that an arts council “needs money” as much as a food bank, or a child-welfare program. Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is difficult to deny.

But in my world-view, every coin has two sides. Government, the will of the people, must not be allowed to address all of society’s ills without also investing in society’s benefits: those things that bring joy, beauty, and (forgive me) social capital. It has been demonstrated over and over again that one cannot simply throw money at a problem without also throwing money at the solution. Problems are easy to spot; solutions are more subtle. Increasing police presence in a community to put young men and women in jail for what are essentially antisocial crimes (drug abuse, for example) is easy and politically defensible. But just doing that will not address the root cause. Arts programs that engage kids after school, that offer alternative outlets in addition to recreation programs, that allow kids to freely “express” themselves in a safe environment that is mutually supportive can, do, have, and will offer a lasting solution. And that is just one example…there are many others.

The program, the service, the project, the outcome, the value to the community—these are what our advocacy has to focus on. We have to model our behavior after the people of the small town. If we only focus on the money, and how our administrators and our artists and our suppliers all need more, we will spiral downward and wonder, like the large town, where the heck we went wrong.

“All well and good (you say) but I have an electric bill 60 days overdue and I can’t make payroll next week. I need the money NOW.”

Stay tuned…

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