Friday, June 12, 2009

(Not) Cheap Art

The story goes that, years ago, a marketing hotshot created an ad campaign for Subaru with the following tag-line: "Cheap, and built to stay that way!"

Sales of Subarus promptly nose-dived, the campaign was ditched, the hotshot fired.

Subaru was, of course, trying to position itself as the inexpensive but reliable alternative to a host of competitors in the class of vehicles designed to attract the attention of the cost-conscious suburban/rural soccer mom.

Anyone who has or knows a real soccer mom also knows that that particular cohort is not into "cheap." Inexpensive, sure. Cheap, no.

I confess, I feel the way the Subaru soccer mom does when I hear or see the term "cheap art for sale." I cringe.

Lately, I've been seeing more and more notices for Cheap Art; often they are poorly magic-markered onto cardboard signs at local Farmers' Markets. But in a recent notice about the Northeast Kingdom being featured in the July/August issue of National Geographic Explorer Magazine, the Kingdom is described, in part, as "home to the pioneering Cheap Art Movement."

Hmmm. Is this "on brand?" as our Tourism Commissioner likes to intone?

Our "pioneering heritage" as the first to outlaw slavery, the first to recognize civil unions, the first to use a postage stamp, laughing gas, sandpaper, and a host of other firsts, is something that all of us in Vermont may be proud of.

But cheap art?

I can't imagine anything more likely to quash a desire to visit the Kingdom than the prospect of being exposed to bale after bale of Cheap Art. [Note to self: whales come in pods, crows come in murders; check the internet to see of Cheap Art comes in bales. It sounds like it should.]

There's a guy in town who, when he completes them, shellacs jigsaw puzzles, frames them, and hangs them on his wall. He has several dozen creations and, he tells me, he only hangs a small portion of his collection at a time and he changes it whenever the mood suits him. He's got a farm in Peacham, Main Street in Moscow, Ascutney Mountain in the fall, and a bunch of other Vermont land- and village-scapes about which he regularly boasts.

There was a barber down in Savannah, GA in the 1980s who took up whittling. Over the course of his lifetime, he recreated pretty much every person he came in contact with as a small wooden doll, crafted with his two hands and a two-dollar pen-knife. Sometimes he'd give one of his pieces to a family member as a holiday gift, but most often he'd give them away to clients who liked them. Then he'd whittle another likeness. At his death he had a collection of nearly a thousand dolls he'd created over the years.

So here's a trick question: which of these makes cheap art, and which does not?

Here's my take on it.

If an artist values his/her own creations so low as to allow them to be labeled "Cheap," it creates an oxymoron. Art is not cheap. Art is never cheap, not when it is the result of a guy putting a jigsaw puzzle together, framing it and hanging it on his wall, or whiling away the hours with a pen-knife and a block of scrap wood.

Cheap is a state of mind. It starts with "inexpensive" and takes a disrespectful turn into self-loathing. Cheap is not Vermont. Cheap is not Art.

Let's do something about this; can we call it "Inexpensive Art" "Affordable Art" "Art Anyone Can Own" "Art for People for Whom Money is the Only Object" or something else? Please?

Monday, June 1, 2009

WWW The Vermont Arts Council

As we started planning for our 44th Annual Meeting in the Vermont State House on Thursday June 4th, our Board recognized that so many things have changed in the past few years, both nationally and in Vermont, that it would be a good thing to provide an overview of who we are, what we do, and why we do it--hence the WWW title of this post. The following (with a few edits) was distributed to Vermont media outlets earlier this week and I thought it a nice way to introduce my first-ever “Guest Blog Post” from Marie Houghton, the Council’s Chair Enjoy!--ALA

In 1965 the Vermont legislature approved Act 170 which directed state and federal funds to the Vermont Arts Council for the purpose of "increasing the opportunities for Vermont's citizens and visitors to view, enjoy and participate" in the arts.

For the past 45 years, trends in the arts have fluctuated but we have held that founding principle as the basis for all we do. We have also followed the lead of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in articulating artistic excellence as the core criterion by which we assess applications for funds. At times it has been a challenge to respond nimbly to national and state influences in our operating environment. But through it all we have remained community-centered.

Until the 1980s, the Council’s appropriation from the NEA (representing more than a third of our budget) grew annually and we invested heavily in developing the capacity of Vermont’s cultural organizations. The Council offered sizable operating funds to community arts organizations and healthy artist fellowship grants. Our primary focus was on facilitating organizations’ ability to present—and individuals’ ability to create—art.

The environment supporting an "art for art’s sake" philosophy began to erode during the Reagan era, and when funding from the NEA was slashed in the mid-90s, the Council faced a new reality. With less money, how could the Council help organizations fulfill their missions; artists retain their creative vitality; and schools and community centers avoid cutbacks in arts education programs?

Our response—arrived at through careful planning and experimentation—was to invest time and energy in new collaborations around Cultural Heritage Tourism, the Creative Economy, technology-based arts-learning, and projects like Palettes of Vermont that encouraged public participation in creative activities.

Today the Council is reaching a broader Vermont audience than ever. In the past five years we’ve given nearly 700 grants totaling $2.3 million for creation, presentation and arts education. Peer panelists review and recommend grant applications for funding based on criteria that, in virtually every case, states “high artistic quality” as the primary consideration for funding.

In terms of outreach, however, nothing we have done has been as successful as our Statewide Community Arts Projects: 47,000 Vermonters participated in the 2006 Palettes of Vermont project and 60,000 are currently engaged in Art Fits Vermont (the puzzle project). We do not believe that encouraging Vermonters to participate in the arts at whatever level they are comfortable, and rewarding outstanding work, whether created by artists or presented by arts organizations, are mutually exclusive activities. They are not.

As trustees we are proud of the Council's work, from our statewide projects, our grant programs and workshops that support the creation and presentation of art, to our Cultural Facilities Program and the "Art of Action." This last is an innovative, public/private collaboration with Lyman Orton and has resulted in the largest commissioning project in the Council’s history and was the cover story of the February 4, 2009 issue of Seven Days.

Our recent listening tour provided great food for thought as we evaluate how best to serve Vermont’s creative community in the current environment. We are always open to new ideas: drop by the Council's office in Montpelier, send us an email, or give us a call with your thoughts. Even better, come to the Vermont State House on Thursday, June 4 and join us at 4 pm for our Annual Meeting and Awards ceremony. We look forward to your participation.


Marie Houghton, Chair
Vermont Arts Council