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The NEA debate and urban land use policies
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Why artists and their communities should care about public arts funding

The recent renewed attacks on funding the National Endowment for the Arts may be located in cynical political attempts to revive “culture wars” for electoral political advantage. However, the consequences for our society are greater than the nuisance for funding agencies such as state arts commissions or performing arts groups. Arts journals and critical discourse were already decimated in Jesse Helms’s led assault on NEA during the Reagan era. Narrowing opportunities for creative and critical discussion encourage an oppressive, anti creative context for society at large.

Some legislators use the budget deficit as an excuse to cut arts funding. Such excuses cause larger political problems for women: with health care cuts, especially around obstetrical-gynecological care (such as the Planned Parenthood debate), women have fewer resources or time to dedicate to political activism. We often assume members of both parties employ this ruse to demonstrate a commitment to fiscal responsibility (but compare who voted to bailout the banks). As artists, we face multiple challenges at the same time we need to increase our commitment to our profession. When these discouraging pressures mount attacks on art support, our own creativity is our sustenance.

What are the real benefits of publicly funded art? I believe these benefits go beyond the issues of making art with community themes. Our profession is an industry overlooked by civic planning unless officials consider tourism or marketing. We know that art provides economic sustenance in the urban environment; so we also need to consider, how friendly is your city to art? Does it zone for art? Does it provide tax incentives or even subsidies to artists who locate there, providing employment and purchasing materials and services? What about civic support for low cost housing and art work zones? Some artists have considered approaching such questions using visual art models.

This image is a shot of Ballard Works, a private building owned by artists. In addition to renting studio space upstairs, the building holds Sev Shoon Arts Center, a complete print studio available for community artists to rent. I rent occasionally to create my prints. 2862 Market Street, Seattle 98107, 206.782. 2415 http://www.sevshoon.com/

Architect and urban planner Rick Lowe is best known for “Project Row Houses” in Houston where artists and low income people are employing art approaches to community development. His 2010 project in Anyang, Korea, to work with neighborhood businesses, offers insight into creativity’s social benefits. Lowe found that in the midst of large scale redevelopment from single story to multistory towers, small shopkeepers faced demise of their businesses and expressed opposition to new construction. Knowing little of business models, he perceived the limitations of their resistance since they had no alternatives to propose. The artist developed processes for participants to explore their own vision of development, including implementation. Lowe’s work expresses his perception that the creative process is a source of self determination.
(from a talk at Kane Hall, University of Washington, “Generosity of Cities”, March 10, 2011, see http://nowurbanism.org/ scroll down to this event and check audio recording)

Lowe responds to Gregory Sholette in a Huffington Post interview, “For developers, it's about short-term gain. They want to put in as little as possible and take out as much as possible right up front. From my perspective, as an artist that's interested in housing, it's about the possibility of long-term value that housing would produce in a community. . . . We started to shift the dynamics of the economic structures around the community. . . . It's giving us the opportunity to do some things that can control our economic destiny. . . .” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gregory-sholette/activism-as-art-shotgun-s_b_785109.html#s185200 )

While the political arena continues its crisis management approach, we can emulate Lowe’s strategies, envisioning and developing our communities to provide for the arts, exercising creativity in everyday life. Making art is a muscle: the more you work it, the stronger and more resilient it is.


NB: context of this thinking: A major artists' building in Seattle is slated for demolition in 2012 (not this building) due to the state's replacing the Alaskan Way viaduct with a tunnel. The "Big Building," . . . "619 Western Avenue is one of the largest artist studio buildings on the west coast if not the world. It has been a workspace for artists since 1979. Out of the 169 buildings susceptible to damage by the tunnel boring, 619 Western Avenue is the only building that will need structural reinforcement or demolition. Not much if any chance of the former. Demolition is the focus. Tenants have been told to vacate by March 2012." (http://619western.com/)

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