Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Who supports whom?

In my last post, I referred to a recent column by Geoffrey Norman who, upon reviewing cuts to the Vermont budget, indicated he had little sympathy for proposed cuts to arts organizations. His argument closed with the following: "If we don't do something soon about promoting some job growth and economic activity, we may have to take up a collection and hire some musicians to play a funeral march.

"Meanwhile, let patrons support the symphony. Worked in Mozart's time."

Sorry Geoffrey. You're wrong.

Remember the famous John Adams quote?

"I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain."

Why did he write that? What made him think that the arts were a pursuit more worthy than politics and war, more worthy, even, than philosphy, geography, etc.? Was he an intellectual snob? Was he a social climber? Or was he someone who maybe recognized that what a civilization leaves behind, ultimately, is not its war record, nor its list of who was President when, or how well his economic policies worked, nor the size of its geographic footprint after conquering its enemies.

What a civilization leaves behind are its cultural artifacts--its art, its music, its poetry and prose, its great architecture. And all John Adams wished for was for his grandkids to be a part of that legacy.

That alone convinces me that there is a role--even a mandate--for government support for the arts. But let's pull the discussion back to the stock markets worldwide are melting, as credit is disappearing, as China, Japan, and India absorb more and more of our debt, and as our current President reels from one massive crisis of his (and his party's) own making to another.

Why support a symphony, or any arts organization or arts education?

First, let's remove any doubt you might have in your mind. Patrons in Mozart's day WERE the government. Or, more accurately, a combination of nobles and the Church (remember the Holy Roman Empire?).

In most Western European countries (whence the bulk of our cultural antecedents in America come from) the combination of a few wealthy nobles working in league with their Church counterparts called virtually all the socio-politico-cultural shots. And their support then was as fleeting and will o' the wisp then as it is now--if not more so.

Mozart, remember, died in poverty and was buried in an unmarked pauper's grave. Given his popularity at the height of his creative career, this is a damning indictment on the funding structures in place in his day.

But more important than that, let's cut to the nub of the issue. What does society "get" for its investment in "the arts?" Even more to the point, let's ask the question this way, Do the arts, in any way shape or form, contribute to the generation of jobs and the improvement of our economy? Isn't that, really, what Geoffrey Norman, needs to know?

Well I know the answer to that. And so do the owners of galleries and restaurants in Brattleboro and on Church Street in Burlington. So does the CEO of Chroma Technologies in Bellows Falls, and the founder of the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction. In fact, if you ask any business owner who depends on foot traffic what, besides the fleeting period of "fall foliage" and the Christmas Holidays, has a positive impact on his or her sales, the answer will absolutely include responses like "whether the Flynn (or any other performing arts center in any town) has a show that night."

Create jobs? You bet we do--not only in the arts sector itself, but to a significant degree in the additional momsandpops that sprout up around our cultural centers.

Sure, the restaurant, hotel, gas station, and shopping mall "sector" is where a lot of the transactions occur that the state uses to measure our economic health. As a result, those industries receive lots of support in the form of advertising and marketing support (yes they do, just pick up Vermont Life Magazine, or look at any ad campaign put out by the Dept. of Tourism and Marketing).

But go one level deeper and ask THIS question: what causes people to go to restaurants, stay in hotels, buy gas, go shopping? A big part of the answer will be skiing, hiking, camping and all the other traditional "Vermont" activities. But right up there with those will be things like Shelburne Farms and the Vermont Symphony, the Mozart Festival, The Marlboro Festival, the Warebrook Festival, Yellow Barn, the New World Festival, and on and on and on.

And that's just job creation. I haven't even mentioned the impact of the arts on giving our kids skills and practice in educational settings that are directly related to 21st century workforce needs, like creative thinking, collaborative problem-solving, cultural and ethnic tolerance, and (for those who find themselves onstage), public speaking skills.

That's a one-two punch that is well worth the State's investment. And the dividend? Quite often it's some really great art!


Kate said...

Bravo Alex, well put. A campaign to bring these reasoned thoughts to the public is needed. Perhaps there is a forest/tree syndrome happening. The arts sector is so convinced of the merit of your well composed argument that it, perhaps, escapes us that the business sector has a different perspective. Indeed, it did not work for Mozart, nor Van Gogh either...nor countless others. The starving artist = poignant artist is a used up and inaccurate paradigm. And it stems, in part, from the opinion that art is either acclaimed decoration or entertainment --and if neither, then the product of an "unsuccessful" artist. Thank you for furthering the thinking, for tackling a thorny issue ---but one which, when left alone, only inhibits much needed progress for all.

Candy Barr said...

Absolutely to the point, and good comment Kate as well.