Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Chicken Little: a Reinterpretation

Chicken Little got a bad rap. A couple of acorns hit her on the head and she made the assumption that the sky was falling. It’s a cute story for kids about the importance of proper scientific observation, right?

The sky has served as a source of great story ideas since the ancient Greeks. Remember Hercules' seven labors--the one where he holds up the sky for Atlas while Atlas goes to pick some apples from the gardens of Hesperus? Hercules simply had to hold up the sky for a few days. Chicken Little's fate was much worse and, therefore, her story a much more appropriate morality tale for today.

A fable is a metaphor for life writ large, so the lesson we draw from the tale of Chicken Little is not just about the importance of proper scientific observation, but of making good assumptions. Just because Ms. Little got hit by acorns and not, as she assumed, by pieces of the sky, does not mean that the sky wasn't falling or couldn't fall. After all, we used to assume (those of us that grew up in certain cities in New York and the Midwest) that a river couldn't catch fire. Our grandparents after World War One assumed that there would never again be another "war to end all wars." Democrats in November of 2004 assumed there was no way Dubya could "win" Florida again.

"The fundamentals of our economy are strong." Thank you Mr. McCain. You may be right, but to me, the "fundamentals" are like Chicken Little's acorns. They are the tangible evidence that we use to determine, scientifically, whether our economic "sky" is falling or not. Looking at the evidence it’s pretty clear the stock market IS falling, employment IS falling, gross domestic product (GDP) IS falling, and the country IS in a recession.

[Paradoxically, Exxon/Mobil earned more than it ever has in its most recent quarter--something along the lines of 58% or nearly $15 Billion. I say thank GOD for oil companies. Someone has to be obscenely rich or at least be the exception that proves the rule!]

Here's what happened in a nut--or acorn--shell. A bunch of foxes sold a bunch of homes to a bunch of people who couldn't afford them. Then the foxes bundled these high-risk mortgages and sold them as investment opportunities to quasi-government suckers named Freddie and Fannie--and a few others. To sweeten the pot, these foxes also created a new kind of insurance called debt-swap debentures (?) that made these high-risk, mortgage-based investments even more palatable. This attracted 401(K) mangers, hedge-fund operators and lots of other investor-types who decided to get into the act just in time for the house of cards built on these risky investments to collapse. And when it collapsed, it took down an entire industry (investment banking) with it.

At times like this we are all Joe the Plumber—you know, the guy who is neither. But it gets worse.

Pouring salt in wounds of this economic misery, we the tax-payers, in order to stabilize our more perfect union, have been forced to cover all this bad debt to the tune of $2,350 per person for every man woman and child alive in this country today, which means that all those things that the public dollar used to support like health care, education, and the arts and humanities are going to have to suck wind for a lotta years.

And all of this means what, besides being stuck with the tab…?

If you run a not-for-profit, it means your corporate contributions, including sponsorships and in-kind services, will start to dry up. It means your annual campaign (the one you do at the end of the year for that important "second" contribution) will be significantly lower. It means your fundraising dinner-dance and silent auction extravaganza will not sell enough seats, and your overall fundraising goals for the years will not be met.

There is a lot of information available on the web about what you, as an NFP manager, should be doing to prepare yourself for the coming recession. Sadly, or perhaps more pointedly, much of it focuses on what you should have been doing before now (but most likely weren't) to prepare for these times. But I say...who could have prepared for these times...? These times weren't supposed to happen. Our administration should have been looking out for the public interest right? Didn't they swear an oath to do that, or something?

Let’s get back to our friend, young Ms Little. Her story (the version I grew up with at any rate) ends with she and all her friends (Henny Penny, Drakey Lakey, Goosey Loosey, Turkey Lurkey, Ducky Lucky, and Cocky Locky) being turned into a barnyard feast by—you guessed it—Foxy Loxy.

I'm hoping like hell that isn't the fate of those of us in the arts and cultural sector. It's not that we don't like being special; nor that we don't consider the work we do to be special.

We just don't like being tonight's special.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Stompin' with Artists

You probably know most of these homilies:

"You can't raise money without first raising awareness."
"If you want money, ask for advice; if you want advice, ask for money."
"You can do anything you want in your life as long as your willing not to receive credit for having done it."
"Give, Get, or Get Off."
"If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people together to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea."

To these quotes (and yes, the last was from Antoine Saint-Exupery) I'd like add the following "Aldrich Original":

If you want to do anything meaningful in life, involve an artist.

What, besides the fact that I direct the Vermont Arts Council and have a vested interest in this happening all over the state all the time, would compel me to say this right now?

Two things. The first is the fact that, despite a dismal economy, and significantly greater challenges facing us as we seek sponsors and ticket-buyers for our second annual "Stompin' with the Stars" benefit extravaganza and dance competition, the participants, half of whom are "Vermont Celebrities" and the other half of whom are professional ballroom dance instructors, are pulling out all the stops to make this an incredibly lively, entertaining and quintessential "Vermont" event.

Some have issued challenges to their competition and email-blasted their friends to get them to start voting now and not wait for the competiton. As of this morning nearly 70 votes have been cast. Others, not content to dance to pre-recorded music are hiring (at their own cost) live musicians to add a certain "je ne sais quoi" to the proceedings. And virtually all the contestants are purchasing additional dance lessons from their instructors to make sure that they have every possible advantage as they each--as contestant Gerianne Smart of Vergennes so delicately phrased it--"dance for money!"

The celebrities, many of whom are artists in a field other than dance, as well as their instructors are, more than any other group involved, making this event a happening. Their efforts MUST NOT go unrewarded. I have already filled a table and I hope, if you are reading this, that you will consider filling a table as well. Your friends, family, clients, etc. will thank you for months!!

The second reason I say you should involve an artist to make an event (even more) meaningful is because it's true. Whether you are a city planner trying to improve traffic flow and "livability," or an eighth grade teacher trying to make Renaissance come alive to a bunch of students, or a civic volunteer trying to find a way to attract more tourists to your community (I could go on and on but I'll stop there), involving an artist in your plans will vastly improve your chances at succeeding.

Look at it this way. We make "artistic" decisions every day, from what to wear, to what color and make of car to buy, to how we want our hair cut or our garden to look, or the color of our house to blend in with the neighborhood, or not. Some people are perfectly capable of designing their own home, their holiday greeting cards, their wedding, their funeral, their landscape and so on. But most of us need help.

Whether you work with a designer, an architect, an artist, a dancer or, for you really brave types, a circus performer,* I guarantee you will have a more meaningful outcome. Your plans will be more vibrant, your choices more daring and true to your personality, your intentions more clearly stated and contextual.

Face it. Artists (performing, visual, theatrical, film/media, and applied) are creative, fun people--even, or perhaps especially, the self-styled curmudgeons. They poke, prod, challenge, and often make us laugh in the process. They communicate with tools that are far more adept at focusing on emotional connection than mere words.

Whatever you are doing, involving an artist will add zing to it; will make it a savory memory, or a fantastic success beyond your wildest imagination. It might even make you get up out of your chair and come Stompin' with us at the Burlington Hilton on November 1st.

We all...our communities, our state, and our country...could use a little of that kind of magic about now.

* a wink to our recent Governor's Award Recipient Rob Mermin, founder of Circus Smirkus.

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!