I was among the large crowd of arts supporters (around 800, The Columbus Dispatch reports) who turned out on September 19 at The Ohio State University's Mershon Auditorium to hear a moderated discussion, "A Way Forward: Arts and Economic Development."
To address this topic, Charlotte Kessler, the Greater Columbus Arts Council, and the Ohio Arts Council assembled a panel composed of Rocco Landesman, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts; Columbus mayor Michael Coleman; Douglas Kridler, the President and CEO of the Columbus Foundation; and Les Wexner, CEO of Limited Brands, prominent arts patron, namesake of the Wexner Center for the Arts and board member over the years of many eminent non-profits including The Ohio State University, Stanford University, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It would be hard to think of a panel better suited to its topic.
Consensus rarely occurs when men in suits assemble these days; rounds of applause rarely pass the hands of arts advocates, who are more likely to be wringing them in the presence of potential funders. But this occasion was virtually dripping dollar-green tears of relief and joy. For the message came loud and clear: The NEA is a willing partner to a city that fully recognizes how the arts generate vitality, optimism, and business revenues. Many convincing facts and figures were cited to demonstrate that a dollar spent on the arts yields the sort of return that makes any business-minded person sit up and take note. Entrepreneurs are attracted to neighborhoods where cultural organizations start up. Arts groups provide safe, stimulating places for children, and deter crime in doing so. The arts help cities retain their young professionals, and they attract visitors by providing a lively, sophisticated atmosphere.
Because of the brilliant success of our Short North arts district, Columbus is indeed, as Chairman Landesman warmly noted, a national model for successful arts-and-business linkage. Artists and enterprising gallery owners in the '70s transformed a derelict neighborhood into a quarter of urban chic filled with entirely local galleries, boutiques, restaurants and bars. The prosperity of the Short North is credited to the arts.
This goodwill forum ended with Mr. Kridler's hope that the audience could "feel the love" that came from the panel in such form as Mayor Coleman's optimism that arts will anchor the revitalization of two other Columbus neighborhoods ripe for comebacks. Everyone left happy. There was feta cheese at the reception, so I left happy too.
Otherwise, I still feel a little queasy about the whole thing. As I see it, once again it's the old story of "Artists to the front lines;" artists as the canaries in the coal mine; as the cannon fodder in red coats. When will down-market neighborhoods be saved by sending in car dealers, chiropractors, Best Buy and The Limited?
What have artists got that others don't, making them so desirable for this job no one rushes to claim? Apparently it is that, unlike people in other forms of enterprise, artists are comparatively poor, they produce products, and they are committed to their art even in the face of the most terrible financial incentives. They are committed enough to take anything they're offered, as long as they can concentrate on their work. On this, funders can generally rely. Artists don't expect reasonable compensation.
Businessmen and governments can rebuild using the arts because arts organizations are malleable. They can be squeezed financially by business and government and then praised for tightening the belt when told to. The controllers of the economy know how well the arts will make them money and build new neighborhoods too. How we love the arts, those economy-builders, as long as arts organizations never use their power, and as long as individual artists don't make a living or fight to make more. As "student athletes" are to the NCAA and universities, so artists are to business and government.
Columbus's charming Short North has lost many of its most respected galleries in the past ten years. Other business have come and gone too, but galleries aren't replaced, while places to buy scented soap or to have some new fantasy on the martini always are. Do artists inhabit the Short North? It's become so stylish and upscale that few can afford it. The founders are long gone.
But artists remain great at spade-work. During my years in greater Boston, friends were deeply involved in a large artists' cooperative that united to finance and purchase an empty warehouse in Somerville that became the Brickbottom building of artists' live-in studios with a communal gallery. This vast addition of affordable housing was a tremendous boon to the art community. But as Brickbottom—between the railroad tracks, down the street from the sanitary transfer station—became known, it became the chic place to be. Residents found they could make money not by selling art--a dicey income-producer at best--but by selling their studios at immense profit to non-artists who liked the artsy address. At least those cynical artists showed some (inappropriate) capacity for self interest: There's "the arts and economic development" for you. The city of Somerville is the better off, but I don't know if a new generation of artists can still afford to buy in at Brickbottom.
In the economic development model advanced by our recent panel, artists make/write/play stuff that people want to consume. The idea seems to be that if people go to the Short North on Gallery Hop night, they will consume art as well as apple-tinis (although there seems to be increasing confusion between these commodities). But even if people were out to build art collections of a Friday night, this would benefit only the very few visual artists whom galleries have chosen to represent, many of whom are not local. The healthy galleries remain open anyway because they are well-defined specialists in the market and have national and international clientele.
Artists aren't just craftspersons who make items for mass-market trade. Many artists make art that has limited appeal; many more make art that lots of people deplore. This holds for the work of writers and musicians. But if we think about the artists who actually do occasionally sell, who gig, who place a story in a magazine—these rarely come close to averaging the minimum wage for sales of their artistic product. They must teach or have a day job to make ends meet. For very few can being an artist be a full-time job. And a lot of the public sees no reason to question or object to this. It's not widely perceived that "artist" is a "real job," on the level with salesman, financier, or business owner.
At least not until it comes to economic development, when art becomes real and central, and everyone has plans for artists because they provide the basis for everyone else's economic growth—as we've just been convinced by people in the best position to know.
But is there any expectation that artists themselves will make money from economic development? Is anyone talking about the growth and stability of the arts organizations, of getting them to the place where they no longer have to live in iron lungs with government and business entities at the switch: Breathe in this year, breathe out the next?
Our Mayor suggests that neighborhoods newly flourishing with the arts will have more galleries. Is the model a crafts fair, at which the artists profit from their low-overhead booths? Or, more likely, will each new gallery select a few locals from a national pool, with usual contract of 50-50 between owner and artist? Galleries are businesses that make money; their first job isn't to be arts organizations. They'll take the artists they can make money from. Economic development does not trickle down to local artists in any art form just because the city uses them to get the gentrification ball rolling. It's just one example. Bureaucratic ideas of how the art world works are nearly always generous, as we see here; but they rarely have right the information upon which plans are made.
When anyone tells artists that it's love and marriage with economic development, it's time to be skeptical. If artists decide to be part of the action, fine. But it has to be a considered decision.
Artists and arts organizations are acculturated to being beggars. Most will do too much for too little, will take orders from people with funding, and will justify all sorts of price reductions, free donations to charity auctions,or other sacrifices by thinking that they will "be good for my career," or "get me some exposure." They are likely to conspire in robbing themselves of their own productions and effort.
The case is now made by funders with power that the arts are key to the future of Columbus, Ohio at least. They said it. A dollar spent on the arts multiplies itself many times over. I am completely convinced of the truth of this argument. Artists should take seriously that they are needed, as they always have been. The implications of this are serious too: Artists are in the position to act from strength, not only to advocate "the arts," but to advocate for themselves, for their own, individual careers and incomes.
Artists need to think like business people—or at least like people who expect to get paid for their work and unique capacities. Artists should be paid for their value in the marketplace, for contributing what they do best, and for irreplaceable skills and knowledge. It's sort of what members of sports teams get, isn't it?
So, when it's implied that artists fly down the mine shaft for the excellent goal of making Columbus or any other city a more chic, livable, economically successful place, they should respectfully insist that they're flying business class, with accommodations and guarantees upon arrival. That, or they'll discuss the new neighborhood after Macy's moves in.