Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A Few New Positions

A few days before Father’s Day I received a package from my father.  It was a book titled “Dancing with the Queen, Marching with King”—his memoir of a life spent in public service.  The title is a reference to his two most memorable life experiences: his participation in Martin Luther King’s famous march from Selma to Montgomery in March of 1965 as one of the two official NY delegates (and one of only 13 white people to go the whole distance); and his foxtrot with the 26-year-old Queen Elizabeth at the opening of the new American embassy in London in 1953.

Normally I’m not a big fan of memoirs, but for the past few days I have been simply unable to put this one down. I have always loved and admired my father, but until this past week, I have never had a clue as to what he did during the day when he left our house at 7:30 in the morning.  I knew what his job titles were, but I never knew of his role in quelling the Rochester (NY) riots in the 1950s; of his opening up the Erie Canal to recreation; or compelling Cardinal Spellman of New York to include Black marching bands in the St. Patrick’s Day parade for the first time. For all its flaws (some technical and a few narrative), this book has given me not just a glimpse, but a real hard stare into my father’s career, a career of which he is justifiably proud.

It has made me think of the kinds of questions my own children will be asked by their children about their grandfather (me).  What did he do Dad?  Why did he choose to be an arts administrator? How did he end up with that as a career?

Normally when I’m asked these questions by people networking for a new job or interested in a career change, I demur.  But my father’s memoir has given me reason to be a bit more forthcoming because as I age, I remember details less and less.  I need to put some of this stuff on paper before it disappears completely.  I’ve thought of a title for my memoir, though.  It’s called “A Few New Positions.”

I can only bring up brief episodes as being formative: such as the time my mother signed me up for an art class when I was in 8th grade that turned out to be a life-modeling class, complete with fully nude models (my friends were so-o-o-o jealous!); and another time when a bunch of us were recruited to be extras in a film being shot at the Brooklyn waterfront.  When the film was released two years later, I went to it at the CineLido East on 59th Street with my mother, both of us brimming with anticipation.  It turned out to be a soft-core porno flick and we sat in mortified silence through the entire thing.  Neither of us spoke when it ended.  We couldn’t even look at each other.  About halfway home, at 2nd Avenue and 60th Street, my mother finally cleared her throat and said, “Well, Alexander, I guess you learned a few new positions, eh…?” 

The far more important (though possibly less interesting) episodes that shaped my career in the arts involve a host of players, some world-renowned, some complete unknowns.  There are many stories, some involving priceless punch-lines, others involving staggering examples of bravery or stupidity.  Of the latter, the one that comes to mind first and foremost involves a former boss.

I was hired on a two year contract and at my first formal review I was told by him:  You work well with the staff that reports to you, you get along well with your peers in other departments.  But you have one major problem.  Shortly after you started work here, you got married and then six months later bought a house.  People look at that and say, ‘there is someone who is too ambitious.’  People don’t like people who are ambitious.  It makes them nervous.

By the time my contract wasn’t renewed 18 months later I had amassed an entire notebook of notes with back-up tapes of similar conversations, and my boss’s boss, grateful to avoid a lawsuit, allowed me to remain on staff until I found another position.

I share this story because throughout my career in the arts, there have been many times when I have, to quote my mother, “learned a few new positions” quite suddenly.  All have been a bit scary (no one likes being “between opportunities”), but I can assure you none has been as painfully unpleasant as sitting through that film with Mom at 13 years old.  If I could survive that, I could survive anything…

Monday, June 6, 2011

Creative Economy: 13 Years of Avoiding Whiney Things

A couple of weeks ago, before all the brouhaha hit the Kansas Arts Commission, I attended the Creative Communities Exchange at MassMOCA in North Adams, MA. What a difference a 13 years makes!  Hosted by the New England Foundation for the Arts (NEFA) and Berkshire Creative, it was a two-day celebration of New England’s creative economy in a location that has become synonymous with the term.

In the summer of 1998 at Tanglewood, then-Boston Pops Music Director John Williams gave a talk to about 70 arts and business leaders from around New England.  The arts community had been through a major national crisis a few years earlier, the result of the Sen. Helms-inspired, Speaker Newt Gingrich-led Congressional effort to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts.   John Williams presented a concept that had for a few years been gaining traction in Europe.  There was a new force at work in our communities,  one that most people were familiar with, but that was difficult to define and measure by most economic theorists and policy analysts.

Williams called it the “Creative Economy.”  To paraphrase his words, he said, the Creative Economy was what happens to a place when the arts are encouraged to thrive.  Not only is there an immediate and measurable economic benefit when public dollars are invested in the arts, but there is a far more lasting, though less easy to measure, improvement in the quality of life in a place.  People living in a creative community tend to care more about the aesthetics of their built spaces.  They care more about the quality of their schools.  They care more about the degree to which school-children are engaged in school and civic life.  They tend to trust the social contract that is implicit in the relationship between taxation and social services.  They tend to shop locally and support their own community’s efforts at revitalization.

At the time, the Berkshires had ridden out the economic downturns of the mid-1980s and early 1990s fairly well and, with the notable exception of Pittsfield (the county seat), had little difficulty with its recovery.  Why?  Because the significant presence of the arts throughout the length and breadth of the county was attracting visitors, wealthy second home-owners, and—most tellingly—entrepreneurs who, with a modem and a keyboard, could build their start-up from anywhere in the country so why NOT start up in the Berkshires?  From Great Barrington to Williamstown, from West Stockbridge to Otis, Berkshire County boasted nearly the same number of arts organizations in all of Vermont, and some of them were among the most prestigious organizations of their kind in the world. Collectively, they were an economic developer’s dream.

Today, 13 years later, even Pittsfield has joined its sister communities in Berkshire County and is, as a result of its mayor's eight-year commitment to investing in the arts, well on the road to recovery.

It was necessary, Maestro Williams concluded, for business and industry in New England, to understand the relationships that exist between and among all the sectors (public, private, and nonprofit) to support the Creative Economy as it grows and develops throughout the region.   Over the years different states, and even different regions within states, developed their own particular “brand” of Creative Economy. 

In Vermont, for example, most people think of the Creative Economy in terms of value-added agricultural food-products that are intimately connected to Vermont’s identity as a rural, slow-foods-oriented area.  In Boston and Providence, the Creative Economy is more closely identified with the technology industries—particularly in the areas of medical and entertainment services. 

Higher education was increasingly recognized for its role in shaping the 21st century workforce, and it, in turn, began to sound the alarm to policy-makers about the our K-12 school system and its inability to prepare our children for those demands.

In all, a lot of great work has occurred in the 13 years since the term took root in New England’s fertile soil.  Two are worth mentioning.

First is MassMOCA itself.  We visited the newly-reopened converted mill in North Adams 13 years ago and while the museum was magnificent, the town of North Adams itself hadn’t quite caught up to the changes that were happening.  Now, it is safe to say, North Adams has made serious headway.  There were at least four restaurants between the Holiday Inn and the museum itself about 2 blocks away, and numerous galleries, studios, and small businesses dotting the downtown as well as a new (or apparently revitalized) Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.  The art at Mass MOCA was amazing (as usual) but it was no more amazing, from my perspective, than the town itself.

The second was the award given to Vermont’s own Robert McBride and RAMP (Rockingham Art and Museum Project) during the gathering.  With the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Chair Rocco Landesman in attendance, and in front of more than 250 professionals from all over New England, Robert received the first “Creative Economy Award” presented by the NEFA.  Robert has been laboring for nearly 20 years in Bellows Falls, Vermont, to restore the center of Bellows Falls using the arts as a catalyst for business development and community revitalization.  That he was recognized in this setting, by a group of 250 of his closest professional colleagues was an honor of great significance for him and for Vermont.  Congratulations (again!) to Robert and his partners in the town of Rockingham and the Village of Bellows Falls. It is a well-deserved honor.

Best of all was what Robert said as he accepted the award.

“If you have creative people around the table with you, you’ll do creative things.  If you have whiney people around the table, you’ll do whiney things.  Ask yourself, what kind of table would you like to be at?”

Well put, Robert….